What is the Holy Spirit?
What is the Holy Spirit? Good question. It’s easy to think of the Holy Spirit as a powerful force from God. Or a mysterious aspect of God’s life. It’s confusing to many. So what is the Holy Spirit? The proper question is not “what” but “Who.” “Who is the Holy Spirit” is the right question because the Holy Spirit is a Person. A divine Person. Equal in dignity and majesty with the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is one member of the Holy Trinity. As a Person the Holy Spirit is one we can be in relation to. We can know and love the Holy Spirit just as we know and love the Father and the Son. And the Spirit loves us just as He loves the Father and the Son. Personhood means there is potential for love and union. The Holy Spirit has an intellect and will and with those characteristics freely knows and loves as God.
At the beginning of time we were slowly made aware of the reality of God the Father. The Great I AM. It was revealed to us through the prophets and patriarchs that there was one God and only one. But as time passed we were also made aware of the Messiah who was the Son of God. And as we came to know this Son, in the person of Jesus, we came to realize that He also was I AM. He also was God. And then the Son began to reveal to us that He would send His Advocate, the Holy Spirit. And we came to realize that this Holy Spirit is also God, also I AM. Confused? We shouldn’t be. This was God’s way of slowly revealing the full truth of Who He is over time. He is One, yet He is also Three. One God, three divine Persons.
We say, in philosophical language, that the Holy Spirit is “consubstantial” with the Father and the Son, and with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified. To be “consubstantial” means that God the Holy Spirit is of the same divine substance, or the same divine nature as the Father and the Son. “Con” means “with,” and “substantial” means “substance.” Again, this is philosophical terminology that our Church has used to try to vaguely put into language the relationships between these three divine Persons. And they are the only three Persons who share in this one divine nature. It also means that they act in perfect unity. They share the same will and act in unison in fulfilling this will. They share the same power as God and act as one God.
Being of the same substance means that each Person of the Trinity shares in all the same qualities of this nature. And what are these divine qualities that they each share in? They have all-power, are all-knowing, and are all-loving. They are perfection! And this perfect sharing in these attributes unites them and enables them to act as one.
We also learn that the Holy Spirit has spoken to us already through the prophets. This means that the Holy Spirit did not just appear after Jesus ascended into Heaven. The Holy Spirit did not just start to act at that time. Rather, the Holy Spirit has been active with the Father and the Son from all eternity. It’s just that we only came to a fuller understanding of this Person of the Trinity after Jesus’ ascension. The works of the Holy Spirit were revealed to us more fully after this time helping us to understand Him as a divine Person.
But it’s also important to point out that the age we are in now, the age after the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son, is especially the age of the Holy Spirit! This is the time when the Holy Spirit is especially active in our world and in the Church. The Father is especially seen and revealed in the creation of the world, the Son is especially seen and revealed in the redemption of the world after it fell from innocence, and the Holy Spirit is now clearly seen and revealed as the one active in our lives and in the Church sanctifying (making holy) all who follow Jesus and all who seek the will of the Father.
It is the Holy Spirit who is given to us in baptism. At that time we are made adopted children of the Father, we are made one in Jesus the Son, and we are filled with the Holy Spirit to live out our new Christian calling as sons and daughters of God in Christ Jesus. Now that’s saying a lot. So let’s take a closer look at the activity of the Holy Spirit.
It is the role of the Holy Spirit to enkindle within us the grace we need in order to know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and to know the Father as our Father. The Holy Spirit makes us who we are as Christians.
The Holy Spirit also has the unique role of animating the Church in our day and age. The “Church” here means everyone who is alive in Christ. Everyone who has grace in their lives. Everyone following the will of the Father and living out their Christian dignity as sons and daughters of God. The Holy Spirit makes this happen in a perfect and orchestrated way.
As we look at the workings of the Holy Spirit we see various ways that He has and continues to work in our lives and in the life of the Church. The Catechism #688, spells those ways out like this. We know the Holy Spirit…
—in the Scriptures he inspired;
—in the Tradition, to which the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses;
—in the Church’s Magisterium, which he assists;
—in the sacramental liturgy, through its words and symbols, in which the Holy Spirit puts us into communion with Christ;
—in prayer, wherein he intercedes for us;
—in the charisms and ministries by which the Church is built up;
—in the signs of apostolic and missionary life;
—in the witness of saints through whom he manifests his holiness and continues the work of salvation.
Let’s take a look at each one of these so as to gain a better understanding of the workings of the Holy Spirit.
—In the Scriptures he inspired;
The human author of each book of the Scripture, as explained in Chapter 1, is a true author of the Holy Scriptures. Through that person each particular book of the Scriptures was written. The human author’s unique personality and experiences shine through. But the human author is not the only one writing the book or letter. We also profess that the human author wrote under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit! It was the Spirit who guided each word revealing what He wanted written. It was a joint effort and 100% of both their works. This shows the power of the Holy Spirit to act in us and to use us as instruments. Yes, He acted in a very unique and powerful way when He inspired the human authors of the Scriptures in their writings. This is not something the Holy Spirit will do again, inspiring more Scripture to be written. But the fact that the human author was inspired and was used as such a powerful instrument should tell us not only much about this wonderful gift of the Bible, it should also tell us much about the fact that the Holy Spirit wants to use us humans for divine work. He wants to inspire each and every one of us for a powerful work He has given only to us. Not in the same way that He once inspired the books of the Bible, but certainly in powerful ways nonetheless. When this is properly understood, we should be in awe and greatly anticipate what God has in mind for us while we travel this pilgrimage on earth!
—In the Tradition, to which the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses;
—In the Church’s Magisterium, which he assists;
Jesus established the Church and bestowed the Spirit upon the Apostles who were His first bishops with Peter being the first pope. This bestowing of the Holy Spirit is seen in John 20:22. In that verse the resurrected Jesus is appearing to the Apostles in the upper room behind closed doors. After appearing to them, the Scripture says that “He breathed on them and said to them ‘receive the Holy Spirit…” It was especially with this act that these Apostles were given what they needed to begin their ministry and, in part, to begin to establish what we refer to as “Sacred Tradition.” We will say more about this later but for now suffice it to say that “Sacred Tradition” is not just the establishment of various cultural or human traditions. When we speak of “traditions” with a small “t” we are only speaking of human customs and practices that are established throughout time. But when we speak of “Tradition” with a capital “T” we speak of the work of the Holy Spirit to continue teaching and guiding us through the successors of the Apostles in every day and age. Tradition is the word used to specify the teaching action of the Holy Spirit in every age. And this is important! Why? Because Jesus did not give us a 500 volume book of the law addressing each and every question that would ever arise in the areas of faith and morality. No, instead He gave us the Holy Spirit, and most specifically, He gave the unique gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and their successors to teach us and to lead us into all truth in every day and age when questions would arise. This is Tradition and it is quite an ongoing gift!
—In the sacramental liturgy, through its words and symbols, in which the Holy Spirit puts us into communion with Christ;
The Sacramental Liturgy is the most powerful way that God is present to us right here, right now. The Liturgy is a work of the Holy Spirit where the entire Trinity is made present. In the Liturgy, we use words and symbols through which God shows up and is made manifest. We do not see Him with our eyes but He is there. He is there in His fullness, veiled by the liturgical action itself. Much more will be said on this later on in Book Two of this series: My Catholic Worship! But for now this brief introduction will suffice.
Among the greatest of these actions is the Most Holy Eucharist. In the Eucharist we have a unity of Heaven and Earth. God comes to meet us, to descend to us, and we encounter Him. This is done by an action of the Holy Spirit alive within the Church. You can say that it’s a joint action of the Church and the Holy Spirit and this mutual activity brings forth the very real presence of Christ our Lord.
By “joint action” I mean that the Church, in the person of the priest, speaks and acts using the assigned words, matter and actions (i.e., extending hands over bread and wine while speaking the words of consecration). It is this action that also guarantees the working of the Holy Spirit to make present the Savior of the world in a real and sacramental way.
God is also made present to us in all liturgical actions but, above all, it is the Holy Eucharist that we hold up as the summit of His presence!
—In prayer, wherein he intercedes for us;
We do not even know how to pray by ourselves. Turning to God, surrendering to Him, seeking Him and listening to Him all requires an action of the Holy Spirit upon us. That’s right, we need God’s help to pray to God. It’s an interesting reality.
Why is this the case? Because true prayer is something that must be a response to God. What I mean is that we can “say prayers” if we like and this is good. We can initiate “prayers.” But there is a difference between “true prayer” and “prayers that are said.” True prayer is when God, by an action of the Holy Spirit, speaks to us and draws us by an interior calling. God the Holy Spirit takes the initiative by way of an invitation. And we, on our part, respond. We respond to God calling and speaking and this begins a process of prayer. Prayer is communication with God and the ultimate form of communication we are called to have with God in prayer is surrender and love. It is in this high form of prayer that we discover God acting in our lives and transforming us. And this is an action of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit “intercedes for us” insofar as the Holy Spirit acts on us, transforming us into a member of Christ Himself, so as to present us to the Father in Heaven. The intercession is our transformation in Christ.
—In the charisms and ministries by which the Church is built up;
—in the signs of apostolic and missionary life;
—in the witness of saints through whom he manifests his holiness and continues the work of salvation.
The Holy Spirit is also very much alive in the activity of the Church. It is the Holy Spirit who gives charisms. A charism is a spiritual gift given to someone for the good of the Church. It’s a sort of spiritual quality or ability to offer some service to the Church. Charisms could be as amazing as being prophetic or healing the sick, or they could be as ordinary (but necessary) as being able to organize activities within the Church in an exemplary way. The key to a charism is that it is for the good of the Church and the spreading of the Gospel.
Charisms are especially necessary for the apostolic and missionary activity of the Church. As members of the Church, we are called to evangelize by spreading the Gospel far and wide. To do this effectively, and in accord with God’s plan, we need His grace and action in our lives. We need special charism (gifts) to accomplish this responsibility. And it is the task of the Holy Spirit to bestow these gifts.
The saints are the great witnesses of God. God’s light and goodness shine on them and through them for all to see. It is especially the Holy Spirit who enables these great saints to be shining examples of God’s love for all to see.
There are many ways the Holy Spirit has been revealed to us throughout the ages. There have been many images of the Holy Spirit used in Scripture. Each one of these images reveals a unique characteristic of the Holy Spirit. Here are some of those images:
Breath: The best translation for the term “Spirit” is “Ruah” or breath, air or wind. The Holy Spirit is the “Holy Breath of God.” This image is seen in various places in the Scriptures. For example, John 20:22 says that Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’” The breath of God or wind of God is seen many places in the Scriptures as we will see in our next section.
Water: Water signifies the Holy Spirit in that it is poured and cleanses. It is poured at baptism and the Holy Spirit is subsequently poured in that act. Water also signifies death to sin. This is seen in the story of Noah and the flood as well as in the story of the Red Sea when water destroyed the Egyptian army.
Anointing: The symbol of anointing with oil also signifies an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We see this in several of the sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders). Also, the prophets were anointed with oil to symbolize the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on them for their ministry.
Fire: Fire transforms that which it touches. It symbolizes power, energy and transformation. It was “tongues as of fire” that descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost.
Cloud and light: We see these images in the Old and New Testament. Jesus was transfigured in light. Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. It was a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that led the Israelites through the desert. The cloud is a masking and veiling of the presence of the Spirit and the light is but a small portion of the radiance of the Holy Spirit shining forth.
Seal: To be marked or sealed with God is an action of the Holy Spirit. We say, for example, in Confirmation that there is an indelible character, a spiritual character, a seal, that is impressed upon one’s soul. This is a marking of God and a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Hand: The laying on of hands is a sign of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is seen in Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination and the Anointing of the Sick. We also recall that Jesus laid hands on the sick to cure them.
Finger: It was by the “finger” of God that Jesus did many great works. This shows the Holy Spirit at work in Jesus’ ministry. It was the finger of God that gave the Ten Commandments. And it is by the finger of God that the Holy Spirit continues to work in our day and age.
Dove: Perhaps this is the most common symbol of the Holy Spirit. The dove was present with Noah at the ark, the dove descended upon Jesus at His baptism. White is a symbol of purity and its wings give it swiftness and agility to descend from the Heavens.
The Holy Spirit has been around from before the beginning of time and has been made manifest throughout the history of our Universe. Let’s look at the various ways the Holy Spirit has been at work:
Creation: The Spirit breathed on the waters at the beginning of Creation and is responsible for the principle of life. If you think hard about it, you’ll discover that “life” is hard to define. What actually gives life? What sustains life? Be it plants, animals or humans no scientific discovery can unmask the actual principle of life itself. Much can be said about living creatures and how they work from a scientific perspective. But why they work is another question. And the answer is the Holy Spirit who animates and sustains all life.
Promise, Theophanies, and the Law: God spoke to Moses, Joshua and the great prophets in various ways. These manifestations of God’s presence are theophanies. The law, given through Moses, was also a manifestation of God’s order and direction. And all of these point to the promise of God’s future gift of salvation. A theophany is a manifestation of God, by the working of the Holy Spirit, pointing to the promise of God that will ultimately be fulfilled by the Holy Spirit.
Kingdom: The kingdoms of the Old Testament also pointed to the promise of the one eternal Kingdom which would be established by Christ and orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. These O.T. kingdoms would fall as people failed to live by the law which was revealed by the Spirit. Thus, their inability to keep the law was a sign they needed more. They needed the fullness of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This pointed over and over again to the need for a Messiah. And that Messiah would come and, in the end, bestow the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist: John was “filled with the Holy Spirit” from his mother’s womb. He was the greatest of the prophets who spoke with the anointing of the Spirit of God. And it is by John’s hand that Jesus was baptized after which the Holy Spirit descended in manifest form.
Our Blessed Mother: The Holy Spirit prepared Mary with a special preservative grace (as explained in Chapter 3). This grace was given by a special working of the Holy Spirit by applying the merits of her Son’s death and Resurrection to her at the moment of her conception. She then lived her early life filled with the Holy Spirit. And at the Annunciation Mary conceived her Savior, and the Savior of the whole world, “by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus: Jesus is the “Anointed One.” He is filled with the Holy Spirit and one with the Holy Spirit. At His baptism the Spirit descends in fullness upon Him. Not that the Holy Spirit wasn’t already with Him fully. Rather, this was a manifestation of the Spirit who was already with Jesus revealing this reality. Jesus promised His Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to His disciples. In the end, at His death He “gave up His Spirit.” And after His Resurrection He breathed the Spirit on the Apostles and promised to send His Spirit on all as He was preparing to ascend into Heaven.
Pentecost: Pentecost is the clearest manifestation of the Holy Spirit. As the disciples are gathered in the upper room, tongues as of fire descend upon them and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. They receive various charisms and are given a new strength and boldness to proclaim the Gospel.
Church: At Pentecost the Church is born. We see the Holy Spirit alive in various ways in the Church today. As outlined earlier in this Chapter, the Holy Spirit is the one teaching through the bishops, sanctifying us through prayer and the sacraments, and spreading the Good News through the apostolic works of the Church.
So the Holy Spirit has been very much alive and active in the history of our world and continues to be active in the life of the Church. This brings us to the next chapter on the Church itself!
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