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The Holy Spirit

30 November, 1999

John-Paul Sheridan gives an excellent summary of what the Scriptures and Church teaching tell us about the Holy Spirit, especially as a guide to parents whose children are following the programme in preparation for confirmation. It is the second chapter of his helpful Veritas publication Promises to keep: parents and confirmation.

There is a story that St Augustine was walking along the seashore one day contemplating the mystery of the Trinity. As he was walking, he noticed a boy pouring a bucket of water into a hole he had dug. ‘What are you doing?’ asked Augustine. ‘I’m going to empty the sea into this hole,’ replied the boy. ‘You’ll never get the whole ocean into that hole,’ said Augustine. ‘And you,’ replied the boy ‘will never get the mystery of the Trinity into your mind.’

Hardly a true story, but one with the essence of the dilemma of anyone faced with trying to explain the mystery of the Trinity, or more specifically in this case, the Holy Spirit. It is far easier to look for evidence of the Holy Spirit than to attempt to define the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and ‘is at work with the Father and the Son from the beginning to the completion of the plan for our salvation’ Catechism of the Catholic Church 686. At Baptism we are baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In the simplest of terms the Father creates, the Son redeems and the Holy Spirit inspires. We believe in one God in three persons – Father, Son and Spirit. They are distinct as persons, and are relative to one another. The Holy Spirit is God’s loving presence in each person and in the community of the Church, and the fulfilment of the promise of Jesus to send his Spirit to be with us always.

In life there are many things that we find hard to describe, and it is easier for us to offer images as an explanation. It is much easier to show examples of the many different types of love that exist than to give an all-encompassing definition of love. The evidence of faith and hope is far easier to show and talk about than trying to attempt a satisfactory explanation. With the Holy Spirit, it is perhaps easier to speak about the action of the Spirit than about the Spirit, and with the Holy Spirit we begin not with the early Church, but with the genesis of life.

In the Hebrew Scriptures
We have a tendency to think of the Holy Spirit in terms of the Christian Church, but the evidence of the power and working of the Spirit is contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. At the beginning of creation we hear that the ‘Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters,’ in the first chapter of Genesis. The Spirit is evident in the work and words of the prophets. Isaiah speaks of the working of the Spirit in the successor to David:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. Isaiah 11:1-3.

and in the prophet Ezekiel:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Ezekiel 36:26

In the New Testament
The presence of the Spirit begins with the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus and the angel telling Joseph that Mary was with child ‘by the Holy Spirit’. After his Baptism in the Jordan the Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. The Baptism in the Jordan is one of the few stories of Jesus that is recounted by all four of the evangelists. Later, St Luke gives an account of Jesus’ testimony in the synagogue at Nazareth. It occurs after his temptation in the wilderness, and as his public ministry is beginning. He stands up in the synagogue and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. Luke 4:18-19

Throughout the Gospels we hear phrases like ‘filled with the Spirit…’ and ‘Jesus was led by the Spirit…’ It is testament to the power of the Spirit working in the life and ministry of Jesus. At the end of this earthly ministry, Jesus promised that he would not leave his followers orphaned.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Acts of the Apostles 2:1-4

In Luke 3:16, John the Baptist had spoken about a Baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. The account goes on to list the various people who were in Jerusalem at that time. In an act that seems to reverse the story of the Tower of Babel, the Apostles burst out from the room and began to preach to these various peoples, each of them in their own native language. At the tower of Babel, language had been fragmented and communication lost. Now with Pentecost, the Spirit brought unity and understanding. The people gathered in the room had been fearful after the departure of Jesus, now they were ready to take up the ministry for which he had chosen them. Then Peter begins to speak:

Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy… And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Acts 2:14-19, 21

The Acts of the Apostles continues with many references to the Holy Spirit. Philip is moved by the Spirit to convert the Ethiopian in Acts 8:29. Peter converts the first gentile, Cornelius a Roman centurion, along with his household in Acts 10:1-48.

In the Life of the Church
From the beginning of the life of the Church and the baptism of Cornelius, the power of Jesus was open to all. The significance of the words ‘all flesh’ in Peter’s speech at Pentecost is that the spirit is not just poured out on a chosen few, but on all people, which is where we come in. From the very beginning the Church has relied on the power of the Spirit working through the followers of Jesus. The astonishing and dramatic events of Pentecost should not distract us from the significance of the events. Concentrating on what happened at Pentecost might make it seem foreign to our own personal faith experience, and as a result could make the coming of the Holy Spirit on us seem insignificant. Recounting the story of Pentecost is not about how the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles, but that it happened and changed them completely. It is the same for the followers of Jesus today. The Holy Spirit is poured out on us at our Baptism and the fullness of the Holy Spirit given to us in Confirmation, which also changes us completely.

We call Pentecost the birth of the Church and the Holy Spirit has called each successive generation of Christians to the community of faith in a manner similar to that recounted by the evangelist Luke after the story of Pentecost:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2: 42, 44-47

The Church is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. In the Church the mission of Jesus is brought to completion. This early community gathered for the breaking of bread, they held everything in common, and they gave generously to the poor. It may seem like a long way off from the Church of today, but evidence of that early Church is still in the Church today. As a Christian community we gather to celebrate the presence of the Risen Jesus in the Eucharist, in obedience to the command of Jesus to ‘do this in memory of me’. As a community of faith we are encouraged to give to the poor, perhaps not in the way the early Church did, by selling off everything we have and holding all things in common, but we can’t fail to be encouraged by the frequent generosity of people. 

Even in the early Church, Christians were people who attempted to live a message in the world, which was out of this world. While going about their daily lives in the present world they were anchored in the hope of the world to come. Through the centuries the Church has been affected by the world around it, sometimes to the good, sometimes not. The Church has been influenced by social doctrine, new philosophies, the sciences, by art and by literature. It has led to the rise of people of great courage; witnesses to the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church in its members and collectively has been capable of great acts of courage, dignity, creativity, generosity, and all that the Spirit can do to prompt the hearts and souls of its members. It has also seen the visible signs of its humanity and ability to sin, in the actions of the Church as an institution and by individual members. Much has been done in its name, which has been a source of shame and sorrow. The Holy Spirit constantly calls the Church to renewal and to a new Pentecost, to become rededicated to the preaching of the gospel, and to the breaking of bread.

A. symbol is not just a representation of something; it encapsulates more than that. A flag is not just the symbol of a country. It can be the symbol of national pride at a football match or on a national holiday; a symbol of a nation’s grief when laid on a coffin; a symbol of defiance in times of persecution. When speaking about the Holy Spirit, the Church offers a number of symbols. In relation to Confirmation, reference is usually made to three: Wind, Breath and Fire. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also names among others associated with Confirmation: Water, Anointing, Cloud, Light, Seal, Hand, Finger and Dove. CCC 694-701

On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit first seemed to appear as a mighty wind. The wind is a powerful symbol of what was to happen next. The power of the Spirit gave the followers of Jesus the strength to preach the Good News of Christ risen. Throughout the history of the Church men and women, prompted by the Spirit have brought change to the Church and the power of the mighty wind is still felt today in the Church’s work of social justice, in debt relief, and in the preaching of the Gospel.

In one of his last appearances to the Apostles before the Ascension, Jesus came to them and breathed on them saying ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ John 20:22. Long before that, God had created Adam out of clay and breathed life into him. During the Chrism Mass when the oil of Chrism is being consecrated, the Bishop breathes and in the prayer of consecration says: ‘Pour out the gifts of your Holy Spirit on our brothers and sisters who will be anointed with it. Let the splendour of holiness shine on the world from every place and thing signed with this oil.’

We speak of the tongues of fire that descended on the Apostles at Pentecost, which reminds us of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and Fire promised by John the Baptist. Fire signifies the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit; it burns and purifies. As the prayer says:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful. Enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.


The Gift of the Holy Spirit
Any parent knows that children love to receive gifts. When they do, they don’t open it neatly and tidily, storing the wrapping paper for use later. Children rip. The anticipation with which they expect a gift at Christmas or for birthdays and the excitement that they have in receiving a gift is one of the delights of childhood. This is how it could be with the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift to be used, not stored away. This is not the type of treasure that Jesus told us to store up (Matt. 7:19). We see the gift of the Holy Spirit as the power and possibility of action in the life of the young person being confirmed and by extension the possibility of action in the life of the community of the people of God, the Church.

In the Confirmation ceremony the Bishop prays, asking God to:

Send the Holy Spirit to be their helper and guide.
Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgement and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence,
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.

and he anoints the candidate with the words, Be Sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.

Many of you will remember learning the seven gifts or the seven-fold gift of the Holy Spirit off by heart before your own Confirmation. Here’s a reminder.

In the Hebrew Scripture, God offered Solomon any gift he could want. He chose wisdom. The gift is about the possibility of seeing things as God sees them. It is the gift to look at life with a different perspective – the perspective of faith. It is the possibility of knowing how to live a good life and striving to do that. It is about listening to the voice of the spirit in our heart and acting on those promptings.

It is easy to learn facts and figures, dates and places. The gift of understanding is the possibility to give meaning to what we learn through wisdom. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples met the Risen Jesus. Having explained everything that had happened in Jerusalem and why they were downcast, Jesus set out to explain everything in the scriptures about himself. The disciples knew the facts, Jesus helped them understand and make sense of those facts.

Right Judgement
The world which young people inhabit today calls for this part of the gift of the Holy Spirit more than
anything else. They are bombarded with a myriad of choices and tempting alternatives. The gift of right judgement is the possibility of making the right choices in life, according to Christian values, and sometimes despite what our friends, society, or culture would have them believe is the right choice.

Coming closely on the previous part of the gift of the Holy Spirit is the courage to handle the consequences of Right Judgement. The gift of courage is the possibility to make the right choice even though we would rather go with the crowd, or follow the latest trends, the current fashions, and the will of the peer group. Young people today are not likely to be called to the courage of martyrdom as in the early Christian Community, but it can be inordinately difficult to stand up for your beliefs, or to take a stand against something you feel is wrong.

While not dissimilar to Wisdom and Understanding, the gift of Knowledge helps us to know about our faith and about the world. We often talk about making an informed decision about something and the Holy Spirit helps in the gaining of that knowledge. The gift requires a contribution on our part – we cannot know about the world just by divine inspiration. It requires effort on our part, but we have the possibility of the help of the Holy Spirit.

Traditionally this part of the gift of the Holy Spirit is about how we act religiously; blessing ourselves passing a Church, genuflecting, a sense of reverence when going to receive Holy Communion. It is still all these things, but it can mean much more. In interpreting this gift as reverence for all God’s creation we acknowledge the possibility of the respect and reverence for the environment, we acknowledge the reverence due to every person we meet, who like us are children of God and ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’ .

Wonder and Awe in God’s Presence
Traditionally this was the part of the gift know as fear of the Lord. Wonder and Awe in God’s Presence sums it up better. It is the gift that helps us to see the work of God in the ordinary and extraordinary ways. It is an acknowledgement of the power of God working through our lives, through the lives of others around us, through the Church and through creation. ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’ (Matt. 6:28-29)

The Fruit of the Holy Spirit
An image that is often used with the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit is that of the tree. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the roots of the tree, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit are, the fruits of the tree. If we are led by the Spirit and open to God’s gifts, the fruits of the Holy Spirit will be evident in our lives and in this way people will see that the Holy Spirit is active in our lives, in our work, in the way we treat others and in the way we serve the community of the Church as the practical living out of the gift of the Holy Spirit given at Confirmation. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is mentioned by St Paul in his letter to the Galatians 5:22 as the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Paul sees the fruit of the Holy Spirit as the counterbalance for the various vices. The gifts and fruits of the Spirit are also alluded to in the second letter to the Corinthians 6:6, in the letter to the Colossians 3: 12-15 and in the letter to the Ephesians 4:2, 5:9. In the Alive-O programme the fruits of the Holy Spirit are described as follows:

Love – the Spirit lives!
Joy – the Spirit dances!
Peace – the Spirit rests!
Patience – the Spirit waits!
Kindness – the Spirit gives!
Goodness – the Spirit moves!
Gentleness – the Spirit acts!
Faithfulness – the Spirit dwells!
Self-Control – the Spirit smiles!

Here are some of the many scripture references that can be linked to the Fruit of the Holy Spirit:

‘Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offence and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. Love does not come to an end.’
1 Corinthians 13 :4-7

‘With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and inspired songs to God; and never say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ Colossians 3: 16-17

‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’ John 14:27

‘There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 4:6

‘You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience.’ Colossians 3:12

‘Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives. Then my favour will shine on you like the morning sun.’ Isaiah 58:7-8

‘I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and 1 am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.’ John 17:20-21

‘I, the prisoner in the Lord, implore you to lead a life worthy of your vocation. Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience. Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.’ Ephesians 4:1-2

‘Finally, fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise.’ Philippians 4:8

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