Five Images of the Holy Spirit from Scripture

One of the quirks of the post-conciliar liturgy is that the octave of Pentecost was dropped. Generally, the post-conciliar age has tried to emphasize the gifts and works of the Holy Spirit, so eliminating the octave of Pentecost is quite paradoxical. The Feast of Pentecost ranks right up there with Easter and the Nativity, both of which have an octave, yet the octave of Pentecost fell away. So it is that on the Monday after Pentecost we are back to ordinary time and green vestments.

However, priests have the option (which I intend to exercise) of celebrating votive Masses of the Holy Spirit for every day possible from now until next Monday.

On the blog this week we will be reflecting a bit on the Holy Spirit and His role in quickening the Church and empowering her for her mission of making disciples of all the nations.

In today’s post we will consider some of the biblical images for the Holy Spirit, and in so doing, strive to learn more about what God the Holy Spirit does for us. These descriptions do not reduce the Holy Spirit to simply fire, water, or tongues. Rather, the Holy Spirit is described as being like these things but at the same time greater than they are.

1. Wind

Scripture says,

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting (Acts 2:1).

Note that the text speaks of the Spirit as being like a mighty rushing wind. It but does not say that He is a mighty rushing wind, for the Holy Spirit cannot be reduced to mere physical things, even if He is like them.

This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” Spirit refers to breath. This etymology is preserved in the word “respiration,” which is the act of breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai.

  • the Spirit (ruah) of God was moving over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2)
  • … then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).

The very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam! As we know, though, Adam lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned. As a result, we lost the Spirit of God and died spiritually. St. Paul says plainly that we were dead in our sins (cf Col 2:13).

We see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person, as these first Christians experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does CPR; He brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16).

This image of the rushing wind reminds us that the Holy Spirit brings us back to life and sustains us. If Christmas is the feast of God with us, and Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, then Pentecost is the Feast of God in us. The Holy Spirit, like a rushing wind, breathes life back into us.

2. Fire

Scripture says, And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them.

The Bible often speaks of God as fire, or in fiery terms:

  • Moses saw God as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was.
  • The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Psalm 97).
  • Scriptures call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29), and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; & Mal 3:3).

So it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. As a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).

Fire changes everything it encounters. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged; it may be consumed, converted, purified, warmed, mollified, or steeled—but nothing goes way unchanged.

Thus, God the Holy Spirit, like a Holy Fire, is within us. It is changing and transforming us, burning away sin, refining us, enlightening us, stirring the flame of God’s love in us, and bringing us up to the temperature of God’s glory. He is kindling a fire that gives light and warmth in our darkest and coldest moments. Little by little we become a burning furnace of God’s love and we give warmth to those around us.

As fire, God is also preparing us for judgement, for if He is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus, we must be set afire by God’s love.

So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him one day, to meet Him who is a Holy Fire.

3. Tongues

The fire is described as tongues. Through this we learn that one of the chief fruits of Spirit is to help us witness to others. What is a witness? It is one who speaks of what he has seen, heard, and experienced.

Of this need to witness, the Lord said,

  • You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
  • You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:48-49).
  • When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning (John 15:26-27).

The spirit comes as tongues in order to strengthen us for our mission, for witness. And, oh, how this witness is needed today! Evil has triumphed because the good have remained silent; pulpits have been silent; parents have been silent. The tongues of fire remind us that God wants bold and fiery saints who are courageous witnesses in a doubting, deceitful, scoffing world.

Many martyrs have died courageously over the years, yet many of us today are afraid because we think that someone might raise an eyebrow at us. Pray for the courage of tongues, the courage to speak.

4. Water

Jesus often used water as an image of the Spirit:

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified (John 7:37-39).

In the Gospel of John, the giving over of the Holy Spirit is described powerfully, even at the very moment of crucifixion:

Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe (John 19: 30-35).

In this flow of water, the Spirit comes forth in a kind of Johannine Pentecost. It is a classic Johannine play on words that he relates that Jesus “gave over his Spirit,” a phrase that can mean that He died or that He gave us of His Holy Spirit.

The Fathers of the Church also see water as a fitting image for the Spirit.

  • St. Irenaeus said, Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul … the devil had been cast down like lightning. If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God (Against the Heresies Lib. 3, 17. 1-3: SC 34, 302-306).
  • St. Cyril of Jerusalem said, But why did Christ call the grace of the Spirit water? Because all things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects, one in the palm tree, another in the vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it. In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each man as he wills. Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit. Although the Spirit never changes, the effects of this action, by the will of God and in the name of Christ, are both many and marvelous. The Spirit makes one man a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one man’s self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another to fast and lead a life of asceticism, makes another oblivious to the needs of the body, trains another for martyrdom. His action is different in different people, but the Spirit himself is always the same. In each person, Scripture says, the Spirit reveals his presence in a particular way for the common good (Cat. 16, De Spiritu Sancto 1, 11-12.16: PG 33, 931-935. 939-942).

Thus, water is another fundamental image of the Holy Spirit, for all things are dependent on water to sustain their existence as well as to activate and empower their gifts. I cannot speak more profoundly than did these two saints and Fathers, so I will let their own words suffice.

5. Dove

We know that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. Scripture says,

… and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22).

Again, note the use of simile and analogy. The Holy Spirit is not a bird or a body of any sort. Rather, He is seen in bodily form as being like a dove. The Holy Spirit is God; He is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

The image of the Holy Spirit as a dove is reminiscent of the story of Noah:

After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth (Genesis 8:6-11).

The dove announced to Noah that the bitterness and death that overwhelming sin had brought was now at an end. The dove brought Noah a sign of peace and a sign that the promise of God to cleanse the world was now fulfilled. Noah, having passed through the flood within the safety of God’s ark, may walk in newness of life.

So, too, for us. In the Holy Spirit is peace, shalom. The long reign of sin is ended, and grace is now available to us. We, having passed through the waters of baptism, may walk in newness of life. The Holy Spirit descends on us like a dove, bringing peace, promise, and every good grace.

Here we have five images that help us to ponder the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Surely there are other images and other ways of describing His work, but these five speak powerfully.

This video, “Romancing the Wind,” features a performance of a kite ballet:

A Look at the Fruits of the Holy Spirit

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was given unto our mission to the ends of the earth. Among His gifts are the fruits of the Spirit which deserve our attention today.

The Fruits of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Catechism and Tradition are drawn largely from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he writes,

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Gal 5:22-26).

We can now look at each fruit and ponder its meaning, both ancient and new. Many of these insights are drawn from William Barclay, but some come from Strong’s Concordance.

I. Love –  ἀγάπη (agape) – This is a God-like love, unconditional and vigorous, one that does not count the cost, one that is not based on mere reciprocity. It is wanting only what is good for the other. This sort of love is distinct from other forms of love in Greek such as eros (passionate love), philia (warm love most among close friends, brotherly love), and storge (love of affection usually for family members). Agape love is far above these and is, of necessity, a work of God so as to come to its fullest expression. Hence, it is rightly called a fruit of the Holy Spirit. While some scholars argue that agape is a word that pagan Greeks knew little of, that is precisely the point. The Christians of the first century took this little-used word and sanctified it with special meaning that we have associated with it ever since.

II. Joy – χαρά (chara) – The joy referred to here is more than a passing, worldly joy. It is deeper than an emotional experience. It is rooted in God and comes from Him. Because it comes from God rather than the world, it is more serene and stable than worldly joy, which is merely emotional and lasts only for a time. For example, the following uses in Scripture show how it is always connected to the faith and to God, not to the world:

  • You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy (Ps 30:11).
  • For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).
  • May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
  • Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive, so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. (Phil 1:25).

III. Peace – εἰρήνη (eirene) – This is normally used in the Greek Bible to translate the Hebrew word shalom. This sort of peace is more than an absence of conflict; it is the presence in the human person and in his relationships of everything that should be there. It is a kind of equilibrium that comes from trusting in God and from the experience that everything is all right, that everything is in His hands. It is the tranquil state of a soul fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot. Because of this experience, the peaceful human person does not obsessively seek to control people and things and is more content to allow things to unfold rather than needing to control and manipulate the outcomes of life. In this sense, he becomes more peaceful toward others.

IV. Patience – μακροθυμία (makrothumia) – The Greeks used this word to describe what a man is exhibiting when he is in a position to avenge himself but does not do so. It is often used in the Greek Scriptures in reference to God and His attitude toward us. In the human person, this fruit of the Spirit causes us to be more willing to suffer the difficulties of life and of other people. We feel less driven to avenge wrongs and slights and are more able to endure the imperfections of people and this world. In English we once had the concept of “long-tempered” as the opposite of “short-tempered.” Makrothumia could be called the quality of being “long-tempered,” which is also a quality of God (Ex 34:6). By this fruit we can forebear the crosses, miseries, and difficulties of life in this world.

V. Kindness – χρηστότης (chrestotos) – In Greek, old wine was called “chrestos” which meant that it was mellow or smooth. Christ used this word in referring to His yoke, which was easy (Matt 11:30). That is to say, it did not chafe; it was well fitting and accommodated to the wearer. So, kindness here refers to an attitude that goes beyond mere justice or what is required to something wider and more accommodating. This is a Spirit-produced goodness that meets the needs of others and avoids harshness.

VI. Generosity – Generosity is like kindness in that involves giving beyond what is required by justice. It is distinct from kindness in that it tends to refer to money and things whereas kindness is a little broader and includes matters of attitude and behavior as well.

VII. Goodness – ἀγαθωσύνη (agathosune) – This word is more difficult to define because it rarely occurs in secular Greek.  Its biblical use seems to refer to doing what is right and best for others in every circumstance. This might at times include rebuking or disciplining. At other times it would include encouraging or reassuring. The key point in the word seems to be what is good or best for the other person.  Following are some other instances in which the word is used in the New Testament. Notice that goodness is placed in the context of instruction, truth, and faith. Hence, goodness here can have different applications than just being a “nice guy.”

  • I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another (Rom 15:14).
  • For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. (Eph 5:9).

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power (2 Thess 1:11).

VIII. Fidelity – πίστις (pistis) – This is the common Greek word for trustworthiness, faithfulness and reliability. In the Bible the word is more commonly used in a nominative form simply to mean “faith.” That is, the act of believing in God. By extension it can mean the quality of being faithful. The connection between the two concepts can include the fact that if one believes in God he will tend to be more trustworthy and reliable. This is because his faith imbues him with a sense that God is watching and will hold him accountable. Further, a man is trustworthy because true faith makes him more inclined to respect others and the commitments made to them. As a fruit of the Spirit, fidelity comes as a result of the Spirit’s promptings that we live up to our commitments.

IX. Gentleness – πραΰτης (praotes) – This word is used in the New Testament.  Basically, it is the quality of being submissive to God, being humble enough to be taught by God. It also means being considerate of others.  Another common way of translating this word in English is “meekness.” Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης) as the mean between being too angry and not being angry enough. There is a place and a need for anger. Not all anger is sinful. It is right to be angry over injustice, for example. The meek person has authority over his anger. He can summon its energy but control its extremes. The Greek word here was also used to describe an animal that had been tamed. Hence meekness refers to us having tamed our anger.

X. Modesty – This refers to observing a proper reverence for mystery in terms of the body. The word modesty comes from “mode” and hence avoids both the excessive rejection of the beauty of the body and the flaunting of it. Private areas of the body are clothed in such a way as to keep hidden what is appropriately unveiled only in certain places or before certain people (e.g., one’s spouse, a physician, people of the same sex). Modesty may include not only covering certain parts of the body but also covering the shape of the body to some degree. Finally, modesty would also include things such as posture, comportment, and language. By modesty one observes a middle position between inappropriate disclosure and excessive prudishness. Standards of modesty allow for some variance between cultures and even within cultures. For example, there may be different standards in the workplace than on the beach.

XI. Self-control – ἐγκράτεια (egkrateia) – This fruit or virtue was understood in Greek as the quality of one who had mastered his love of and desire for pleasure. There is a place in life for pleasures and desires; without them we would perish. Since the fall of man, however, our desires are often inordinate and excessive. There is need for the virtue of self-mastery that moderates and regulates them.

XII. Chastity – This is the virtue in which we exhibit proper sexual expression based on our state in life. For a single person, a member of a religious order, or a priest it involves total abstinence. For a married person, it involves total fidelity to one’s spouse in both thought and action.

These are the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit in Catholic Tradition. Many of them speak to zeal, but others are rooted in moderation.

One of the great gifts that the Holy Spirit seeks to give us is not a rejection of passion or other human gifts, but a moderation and proper appropriation of them. God the Holy Spirit has given all the gifts of the world, including beauty and human passions, for a reason and for a good end. The fruits of the Spirit are gifts to both inspire zeal and to regulate and appreciate what God has given for a reason and a purpose. By these gifts we steer a middle ground between rejection and indulgence, excess and defect. Modus omnibus in rebus (All things in moderation (including moderation)). The Sequence Hymn for Pentecost says this of the Holy Spirit:

Flecte quod est rigidum (Bend what is rigid),
fove quod est frigidum (warm what is cold),
rege quod est devium (rule what deviates).

Thus, we see both zeal and moderation in these gifts and in all things, ruling over anything that deviates. Come, Holy Spirit; rule our hearts and inflame them with your love.

A Brief Meditation on the Fiery “Violence” of Love

One of the great paradoxes of creation and our existence in God’s world is that many blessings are unlocked by explosive, even violent forces. The very cosmos itself is in a kind of process of hurtling outward in a massive explosion. And here we are, living midway (?) through that explosion.

When I see fireworks on the Fourth of July, I often think that each of those beautiful, fiery explosions is a miniature replica of the cosmos. Everywhere in the universe, the burning embers we call stars and galaxies glow brightly as they hurtle outward at close to one hundred million miles per hour. Yes, from one great singularity, God sent the power of His fiery, creative love expanding outward, giving life, and seeming almost limitless. The cosmos is unimaginably large, and yet its creator is infinitely large.

Even here on Earth, a relatively cool and stable bit of dust compared to the Sun, we stand upon a thin crust of land floating over an explosive sea of molten, fiery rock. The Book of Job says,

As for the earth, out of it comes bread; Yet underneath it is turned up as it were by fire (Job 28:5).

This fiery cauldron produces the rich soil in which we grow our very bread. The smoke and gases of the fires provide essential ingredients of the atmosphere that sustains us. The molten fires beneath us also create a magnetic field that envelops Earth and deflects the most harmful of the Sun’s rays.

Yes, all around us there is fire with its explosive violence, yet from it come life and every good gift.

To such small creatures like us, God’s expansive love can seem almost violent. Indeed, there are terrifying experiences near volcanos and from solar bursts that remind us that love is both glorious and unnerving. It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God (Heb 10:31).

We, too, in some of our greatest works, use violent means. The blades of our plows cut into the earth, violently overturning it. We raise animals and yet lead them to slaughter for food and clothing. We break eggs to make omelets. We stoke fires to cook our foods and warm our homes. We smelt the iron and other ore we violently cut from the earth. Even as we drive about in our cars, the ignition of the fuel/air mixture in the engine causes explosions, the energy from which is ultimately directed toward moving the vehicle.

Violent though much of this is, we do these things (at least in our best moments) as acts of love and creativeness. By them we bring light, warmth, and food. We build and craft; we move products and people to help and bless.

Yes, there is a paradoxical “violence” that comes from the fiery heat of love and creativity. The following is an excerpt from Bianco da Siena’s 14th century hymn to the Holy Spirit, “Come Down, O Love Divine”:

Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming

Fire—you can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Let the fire burn; let the seemingly transformative “violence” have its way. It makes a kind of paradoxical sense to us living in a universe that is midway through its fiery, expansive explosion of God’s love and creativity.

Disclaimer: Gratuitous violence for selfish and/or merely destructive ends is not affirmed in this post. The term “violence” is used here in a qualified manner, as an analogy to convey the transformative and creative power of love phenomenologically.