Back in the day, Mary of Nazareth set out "with haste," Luke tells us, rushing to a Judean town in the hills where her relative Elizabeth lived with her husband, Zechariah. She was anxious to tell Elizabeth, who was pregnant with the one to be named John, that she herself was also expecting. Mary's greeting was so over the top, apparently, that Elizabeth's "baby leaped in her womb." Luke continues: "And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit" (1:41).
Elizabeth is the first person in Luke's gospel to be filled with the Holy Spirit—although earlier the angel had said that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit (1:15). The Holy Spirit, in fact, shows up quite a bit in the Nativity. Zechariah is filled with the Spirit after his tongue is released. Simeon is said to have the Holy Spirit rest on him and guide him to the temple to see the infant Jesus. And, of course, there is the key moment of the drama: "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 1:18, NRSV).
It's said prosaically, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. But no matter how it is announced, the careful reader of the Bible will know that something momentous is afoot. Because when the Holy Spirit gets involved, trouble lies ahead.
Peace and goodwill are the twin wishes of Christmas, echoing the angel's announcement about the birth of Jesus. And while our worlds—global, national, and even personal—may remain cauldrons of chaos, hope springs anew during Christmas.
Unfortunately, even if we enjoy this for a few weeks in December or a few hours on Christmas morning, we are soon plunged back into the chaos. It could be a dead-end job or a dead-end marriage. Perhaps just a dead end, such as a life-threatening disease. Maybe it's your kids, or your parents, who make life so confusing right now. Maybe it's finances. Maybe it's your church. (Come to think of it, what church doesn't know some chaos?)
The chaos of our lives could easily lead to despair—unless we remember that not all chaos is bad and that some, in fact, is the work of the Holy Spirit.
In the Beginning, Chaos
When God created the heavens and the earth, the Bible says, "The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep" (Gen. 1:2, ESV). Scholars debate the exact meaning of the opening line—is it a thesis for what follows? Or is it the first act of creation? I like a simple reading: God created in rudimentary form the sky and the earth. But the earth was formless. That is, it didn't have any land, lacking mountains and valleys, canyons and deserts. No shapes or form. No property with a view.
It was also "void" of plants, animals, and people. No roses or thorn trees. No eagles or mosquitoes. No giraffes or black widow spiders. No pesky neighbors with barking dogs or beautiful people with shimmering hair.
Not that one could have seen anything anyway, for the narrative assumes that there was darkness everywhere.
And water was ubiquitous. No oceanfront property—just ocean. No tides or waves, because there was no moon to pull the water to and fro. The water that covered the earth is pictured as a placid lake at dawn.
Except that there was no dawn, no rising sun, no crowing rooster, no sparrows chirping to welcome the new day. Just darkness, and silence in the darkness. Not a scary darkness or unnerving silence—for there was nothing yet to fear. No, this darkness and silence were utterly calm, like the peace of a deep, restful sleep. In the beginning, there was utter and complete order and tranquility.
The author of Genesis says that over this order and tranquility, the Spirit of God "brooded." Not a good sign, it turns out.
What follows is usually and rightly interpreted as the unfolding of the divine order of Creation. Six days, six distinct acts of creation. Everything in its place. There is indeed something steady and solid about the created order, for which we are grateful. But look a little closer, and we see something else going on.
What God first created was light. So now there was darkness and light. The creation became dynamic. Light and darkness opposed one another. So different were they, they received distinct names: day and night. And this was only day one.
Next God made sky, and so a new dynamic was introduced. Now there were "the waters" and "the heavens."
The next day land was formed, with another new dynamic: "seas" and "earth." So now there was night and day, sky and waters, earth and sea. God was up to something.
In the middle of the third day, God really got going. He created plants and trees and all manner of vegetation. Chrysanthemums bursting with color, stately redwoods stretching to the heavens, and prairie grass waving elegantly in the wind. And, we must assume, poison oak and thorn bushes and toxic mushrooms. And he gave this resplendent variety of plants and trees the ability to reproduce, to be fruitful and multiply by propagating their seed. As we know, this ability tends to wildness—the lush and verdant chaos of life.
The camera pans out, and we see the creation of the sun, a bright and warm energy that penetrates deeply into the skin of the planet. Then, by way of contrast, came the moon—a beautiful but distant orb that hung in the sky like a shiny earring. And then came an extravagant flourish: stars. Billions of them. This was variety gone to seed, variety without number, a chaos of the heavens.
A Troublemaker God
That was already quite a day's work. But unfazed, God turned his attention back to this planet and really set things on edge. Any vegetation is resplendent enough, but it's pretty much stuck in place, confined to spending its life in one spot. What if there were a life form that could travel the planet, that could crawl and run and jump and fly?
And what if these creatures didn't merely exist side by side but also interacted with one another? What if they absolutely depended on one another, so that, in a paradoxical dynamic, they had to both pursue and be pursued, devour and be devoured by their fellow creatures, in order for life to continue to explode?
So God created living creatures, swarms of them. Creatures in the ocean. Creatures on the land. Creatures in the skies. Trout and sharks, deer and wolves, robins and vultures, among others. And the living creatures would number at least millions upon millions. As he did with the plants, God gave these creatures the ability to self-propagate. And just to make himself clear, God said, "Be fruitful and multiply." As if instinct would not have taken over soon enough.
The planet was now one fine mess. From a state of perfect peace and harmony, it had been transformed in a few short days into a lush, rich, infinitely varied cacophony of color and sound and life.
This is the sort of thing that happens when the Spirit of God hovers over things.
You'd think God had caused enough trouble for a workweek. Five days of activity that had left the planet in a state of holy confusion. But he had one more idea to put on the table before he took a break. What he did next suggests that one's best ideas are not necessarily those that come at the end of a hard week of work. But God went ahead anyway, unaffected by the consequences.
He created people. And he created them in his image and likeness: mischief-makers. Creatures who cannot leave well enough alone. Creatures like animals, restless and on the move. Creatures who pursue and are pursued. Creatures never satisfied with the status quo, born to create something new again and again. Creatures who plan and build and paint and weave and cook and carve and hunt and fish and play.
And if that were not enough, he created people in two varieties, male and female. Of the same flesh and blood, yet as different as night is from day, as the seas are from the sky, as the waters are from the land. Of the same being and substance, but as different as Mars is from Venus.
And here comes a most mysterious thing. To the man and the woman he gave the wild and unruly gift of sex. And without a warning label. Without instructions. Well, except this one: "Be fruitful and multiply." Have lots of unprotected sex. Not exactly family planning. No concerns about the woman's career or the man's freedom. No precise formula for 1.8 children. No questions about carbon footprints or affordability or spending quality time with each child. Just the command to create little communities of chaos and love called families.
The Spirit of God was finally through. The calm, orderly, and peaceful creation had been turned into a variety of form, a chaos of color and sound. And it was eucatastrophe—a good catastrophe—of life, exploding in all corners, spewing forth with the volcanic heat and energy of creativity and love and new life. If the Spirit had been brooding when he started, he must have been smiling by the end of day six. The scene was anything but peaceful. But it was wonderful. It was a holy chaos.
The Great Discomforter
When the Holy Spirit starts something new, things get a little crazy. It happens again at the Nativity. At one level, the Messiah came to save us from evil chaos—the chaos brought about by sin: injustice, guilt, suffering, and despair. But he's not going to save us from holy chaos, because that would thwart the work of the Spirit, who fills him.
So what we see in Jesus' ministry is one chaos-inducing moment after another, from the Virgin Birth ("How will this be . . . since I am a virgin?" Mary exclaims) to the boy Jesus confounding teachers in the temple, to the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness to be harassed by Satan, to onlookers being astounded at his miracles, to the overturning of the tables in the temple, to the startled and frightened witnesses of the Resurrection. Time and again, Jesus under the power of the Spirit creates holy chaos. Roofs come off houses, cripples cast away their crutches, pigs hurl themselves off cliffs, dead people sit up, the religious are confused, sinners are freed, and disciples are astonished when they find his grave empty.
And the Holy Spirit was just getting started. Luke tells us this was what Jesus "began to do and to teach" (Acts 1:1, emphasis mine). We see more holy chaos in Peter's crazy food dream, which leaves him confused about what to do with Gentiles. Then there's Paul, shocked into blindness at meeting the one he'd been persecuting. And, of course, there's the wild gift of tongues falling on the crowd in Jerusalem. Bystanders were so alarmed that they thought they had stumbled upon a drunken party.
When the Holy Spirit starts hovering, watch your back. Yes, the Spirit comes to assure us that our sins are forgiven (peace!) and that we are joined to Christ (love!) and that we have a blessed future with God our Father (hope!). But if the Spirit has started a new work in our lives—whether we call it a new creation or a new birth—we can be sure we'll know holy chaos.
Many people become religious because they want to get their act together. They are tired of living in confusion. They want commandments to follow, rituals to perform, spiritual disciplines to practice. They hope all this will bring them transcendent order. And it will.
But it will also bring something else, something alarming. The Bible describes it as trials, other times as suffering. Sometimes you'll be asked to take great risks. Some are called out of a life of suburban safety into an exotic land or job. Most are simply called to live into the radical freedom of grace wherever they are. Whatever it is, it isn't order. It's grounded on order, founded on the Rock of our salvation. But sometimes our lives will feel out of control. Like getting pregnant at the most inopportune time. Like life exploding uncontrolled in the wild. Like the joy of God falling on you so powerfully, you wonder if you are drunk.
That's holy chaos--the word of the Great Discomforter. Few things are more unexpected, shocking, even troublesome—ah, but also more glorious. As much as we wish each other peace and goodwill this Christmas season, if we have any sense of the way things really work, we'll wish each other a little holy chaos as well.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today. Parts of this article come from his book Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit (Baker Books).
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