Toy version of the rose from Disney's Beauty in the Beast within a glass ball. Text over the top: Transformation isn't powered by love, but by a person. Some thoughts on the Holy Spirit (and my favourite Disney movie)

Transformation isn’t powered by love, but by a person. A few thoughts on the Holy Spirit (and my favourite Disney movie).

The rose she had offered was truly an enchanted rose, which would bloom until his twenty-first year. If he could learn to love another, and earn her love in return by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As the years passed, he fell into despair, and lost all hope, for who could ever learn to love a beast?

Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast

Disney’s animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast was the favourite of my childhood years. One cold winter’s night, an enchantress asks a young prince for hospitality – offering him a single rose. But the prince selfishly refuses and as punishment, she turns him into a beast. 

When Disney’s live action adaptation was released, I went to see it in London. Many of the audience came in costume, buzzing with excitement and taking selfies, particularly in the foyer where there was a life-size replica of the enchanted rose.

As I watched, I actually found myself puzzling. Why people were doing this?

Yes, the rose was beautiful, but in this story, it’s not actually a symbol of romance or love. Instead, it testifies to Beast’s guilt, to the curse that afflicts him and the limited time he has left. 

Images can’t be judged by their appearances alone; instead we need to interpret them in the context of the stories to which they belong. (So it’s ironic that this story, with its core message of how we shouldn’t judge by appearances, seems to rest much of its appeal on the outward beauty of the rose. But I digress.)

As a Christian, I’m quite used to imagery that is complex or sometimes counter-intuitive. After all, our greatest icon of love is that of an innocent man dying, nailed to a cross. And yet, despite the horror and ugliness of this image, the gospel story is nothing less than the hope of transformation. Because the gospel is not just that Jesus died, but that the crucified Jesus rose again to an imperishable, everlasting life. It was the ultimate, death-destroying transformation. We have hope because, just as Jesus shared in our weakness, we may share in his resurrection and be transformed from our current state of death and decay. 

This is the great story of redemption and I love seeing aspects of it played out symbolically in Beauty and the Beast. Inwardly, Beast’s selfishness turns into sacrificial love, and outwardly he turns from a monster into a prince. Not only that, but Prince marries Belle. For the record, this doesn’t mean that redemption is about romance; rather, a royal wedding is one of the best images we have for glorification. 

(I’d go so far as to argue that the animated Beauty and the Beast isn’t actually a romance and that the biggest failing of the live-action version was how it tried to be one – but that’s another post.)

The question is: what possible force in this world could power such a dramatic transformation? 

The obvious answer is love. And many Disney stories promote that answer, with varying levels of nuance.

But is it love that redeems people? For sure, love is the motive for redemption, an act of love is the gateway for redemption and an everlasting life of love is the goal of redemption. Acts of love can testify to God’s goodness, but surely God is the one who redeems? 

Now I don’t mean to draw a false distinction; after all, God is love. Yet I know of plenty of people for whom love was not enough. I used to volunteer for a domestic abuse charity. In that time, I spoke to many women who deeply loved the monsters in their lives, but who never saw transformation. Beauty does not save the beast. 

We need a deeper magic than love. 

We need the Holy Spirit.

Unlike love, the Spirit is a person, with a personality; someone who laughs, who yearns, who grieves; who has a fantastic sense of humour, who delights in our creativity and who never shames.

The wondrous power of the Holy Spirit is to open our eyes and ears to the truth. To enable us to finally see our choices laid bare in front of us.

We think of the Holy Spirit acting in power on the day of Pentecost — and don’t get me wrong, that’s totally a story worth telling. But as great and glorious as the Spirit’s fiery splendour is, the moments when history changes course often aren’t dramatic. They come in moments of stillness when people realise something new, when they stop and go, “Oh.” 

As (in the animated version) Belle said to Beast, “You should learn to control your temper.” Oh.[1]

For all their quietness and gentleness, those moments are the work of a power beyond our own. 

How familiar are we with the Holy Spirit?

Christians believe that God is three co-equal persons in one, yet for some reason, many of us not very practised at speaking about the Holy Spirit. 

We talk about how the Father so loved the world that he gave his only Son to save it. We talk about how the Son, Jesus, so loved us that he gave up his life for us on the cross. But the Spirit?

To be sure, we speak about the Holy Spirit, and we create art and sing songs with images of fire and the dove. Yet, let me ask the church-goers reading this a few questions. Of the times you’ve heard a sermon on 1 Corinthians chapter 13, that famous passage where Paul writes about love, how many preachers linked into what Paul said about the Holy Spirit in chapters 12 and 14? Of the sermons you’ve heard on God’s good promises, how many reminded you that the Spirit is given to us as a deposit, guaranteeing our inheritance?[2] Or of the sermons on Jesus’s discourse with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, how many explained that the living water Jesus spoke about is the Holy Spirit? 

It seems to me that when Christians speak about the Spirit, we are too often like the cinema goers who photographed the rose: we’ve forgotten the wider story and the Spirit’s significance in it. 

Because the revelation of God’s love didn’t end with Jesus’ death on Good Friday or his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Neither is it confined to the day of Pentecost. The story is still ongoing, even to this very day.

And yes, many people are well aware of this incompleteness. That’s why we want to see more of God’s love infusing our way of life. And we celebrate how God’s love has already transformed our lives. 

But we don’t always appreciate that this great unveiling of God’s love isn’t powered by our love for God or for each other, but by the Holy Spirit — who is a person

So to be clear: the Spirit is not ours to capture or harness. We might be able to do that with the forces of nature, such as wind, water or fire, but not with a person. Less still with one who is our Lord.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord loves the world. 

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord proclaims good news for the poor, freedom for captives, release from darkness for prisoners. 

And the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is given freely to all who search for transformation.

May you know the riches of God’s love and may his love flow abundantly through you, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] I don’t rate the live-action version because, amongst other reasons, it completely changed the substance and importance of this moment. Sigh.

[2] Ephesians 1:13, 2 Corinthians 1:22, 2 Corinthians 5:5 and, arguably, Romans 8:23.

Photo by Sarah Le on Unsplash

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