Fr. Stephen Muller, OCSO
Acts 2:1-11; Rm 8:8-17;Jn 14:15-16, 23b-26
Today is the special feast of the Holy Spirit. When we try to picture the Holy Spirit our mental images are somewhat illusive. It’s easy for us to create a picture of Jesus in our minds: young, beard, long wavy hair – we have the Shroud of Turin to aid us. God the Father fits into the artwork we’ve seen: long grey beard, sitting on a stately throne. Those images are easy for our imagination to digest. But when it comes to the Holy Spirit, somehow a dove just doesn’t cut it. It’s hard for us to take him seriously and give him the respect and dignity he deserves.
In religious art, a dove is probably the most common symbol of the Holy Spirit. Fire is another one – we’re all familiar with paintings of Pentecost with tongues of fire over Mary and the Apostles. Wind is another symbol associated with the Holy Spirit, but that’s much harder to convey in art.
I find this image of wind intriguing. We can trace it clear back to the Book of Genesis, the second verse of the whole Bible: “The earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters,” literally, “a wind of God,” or “a spirit of God.”
The Hebrew word “ruah” can mean spirit, wind, or breath. It is a wonderfully elastic word, and goes much further in capturing the elusiveness of the Holy Spirit than any word we have in the English language.
Jesus, too, used this image of wind when referring to the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John when he was talking to Nicodemus he said, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).
Wind is something fascinating because we can’t see it itself, but we know it only by its effects. Wind or a breeze is invisible to our human eye, but we can see the beautiful waves it makes in a field of grain or tall grass, we can see its consequences on the surface of a body of water, we can see the bows of trees gracefully bobbing at its promptings. Sometimes wind is strong and violent, even terrifying – we can conjure up images from the news of damage done by hurricanes and typhoons. This reminds us that the Holy Spirit is not to be dismissed as some cream-puff or cute dove.
Although we cannot see the wind or a breeze, it is possible to feel it. It is wonderful to feel a gentle breeze on our cheeks. On a hot day it is a very welcomed guest and helps keep us cool. How easily it could be otherwise in our fragile Eco-system and atmosphere, but God lovingly added this precious touch to his glorious creation of our globe.
So it is with the Holy Spirit. The very fact that we use the word “spirit” to denote him should tip us off that it is going to be hard to wrap our minds around him, being so grounded in our present state to our five senses. Spirits are something we can’t see, and therefore we are not going to be able to picture the Holy Spirit. Like the wind, though, we can know the Holy Spirit by his effects, by the results he leaves.
Take for instance the apostles. Before Pentecost they were fearful, cowardly, timid. After receiving the Holy Spirit they were courageous, vibrant, on fire for spreading the good news. Thousands of converts could be added after a single speech. After Peter’s speech at Pentecost we are told, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day” (Acts 2:41). This is the same Peter who denied Jesus when an insignificant maid questioned him.
The apostles, too, were hiding behind locked doors when Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection. But once they were filled with the Holy Spirit they became changed persons. In chapter 5 of Acts we read how the apostles were thrown in jail by the high priest and his companions for preaching about Jesus. When they were let out that night by an angel, rather than fleeing in fear of being caught again, they went right back to teaching in the temple early the next morning.
In our lives too we can judge the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit by the fruits we see. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians we read, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23). To the degree that the Holy Spirit is not in our lives, St. Paul enumerates in the same place the following check-list: “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like” (5:19-21).
Think of a potted plant. The pot needs to have a hole in the bottom. Otherwise, the water makes the roots and soil water-logged. The water keeps out the air. Without the precious oxygen, the roots rot and die. With a hole in the bottom of the pot, the excess water can drain out. As it drains away, air automatically replaces it. It is similar in our own lives. The more we get rid of our sinful habits and vices, the more we make room for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and replace our vices with virtues. If our lives are filled with spiritually unhealthy stuff, there is no room for him to bring his life-giving breath and air.
Now picture a person wind-surfing with a big smile on his face. That is what we have the potential to feel like if we let the Holy Spirit fill our sails. Cruising with the breath of the Holy Spirit, how can we not feel joyful, peaceful, patient and loving? We were made to be filled with God’s life. We will always be restless and unsatisfied if we try to fill ourselves with anything less.
In the next screen of the wind-surfer, picture him with one of those weight belts that a scuba diver wears. He loses his balance and falls off his board. The weight of his sins keeps him below the water. There is no longer a big smile on his face. He needs air and oxygen to survive. He is unhappy and scared. But the death of our Lord Jesus has made it possible for him to unbuckle that weight belt and let it sink to the bottom. Without it, he easily floats to the surface and fills his lungs with the Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit. Fill us with your gifts. May our lives exemplify your fruits.