There is a great transition that occurs in our reflection on the Gospel message. This occurs liturgically between the solemnities of the Ascension and Pentecost. Up until that point, the Gospels center on Jesus, the Word made flesh. But at the Last Supper, Jesus introduced a new protagonist Who is going to take center stage: The Mysterious One. I refer to this new revelation of God’s presence and His love by this strange title to shock us out of the ordinary. For, of course, I am referring to the Holy Spirit. But we have so drained all meaning from that name that we are left only with Biblical images that are bankrupt today.
We have to admit that there is a certain deficit when thinking about images of God. God is beyond images; so, we are at a loss when we say the word ‘God’ of what to think of or imagine. ‘Father’ is also a limited image. It conveys certain accurate characteristics of God as He engenders, He protects, He gives life. But there is some content of the word that does not accurately convey aspects of the deity as one who is male, subject to aging, etc.
We are on firmer ground with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity since in the Incarnation He has assumed flesh. Thus, we can imagine a Jewish-looking man of 30 or so years, etc. But when we try to get more specific, we have to confess a great deal of ignorance.
Things get even more obscure with the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. A dove? A flame? Gushing wind? All very inaccurate and very weak forms of understanding!
Because Mary was ‘full of grace’ and was a special tabernacle of God’s presence, she has often been a hidden image of the Holy Spirit (especially in her femininity as the ‘Ruach’ of God, the Spirit—in Hebrew the word ‘spirit’ is feminine).
But this way of understanding the Holy Spirit is at best derivative of a lack of a more comprehensive way of relating to this mysterious One. The Spirit of God, also referred to as the Spirit of Christ, remains very elusive. For in dealing with the Blessed Trinity, all images in the end are found wanting. God the Father is not an old man in the sky. And God the Son cannot be imagined except in the Incarnate One, Jesus of Nazareth. But it still seems that these two Persons of the One God have an advantage in our imaginations as having at least a partial path to relate to.
But the Holy Spirit is really ‘out there’, not having any possible analogy to our own earth-bound reality.
While I was in elementary school, the Church decided to forsake the previous words used to title the Spirit. Originally, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity was called the Holy Ghost. But the word Ghost was removed as being misleading since it denoted the presence of a dead person still lurking in this world. While the word Spirit did seem like an advance, it still left us in a desert of obscurity leading us back into the Biblical similes of flame, wind and dove.
But maybe this invisible presence may be an advantage.
Images can be helpful at times, but often they hinder the development of faith. It is very easy to become attached to a favorite image or way of relating to Christ. But because all images are provisionary, they can become idols and thus stand in the way of our relationship with the spiritual reality that they signify. St. John of the Cross warns us about this pitfall.
When we think of the Holy Spirit there is only one mistake that we can make and that is not considering the Spirit a person and being satisfied with thinking of Him (Her? It?) as a flame, a bird or a wind. Once we are clear of that hurdle, the lack of clear imagery can work in our favor in that it provides a protection for the mystery of the presence of the Spirit. For even when we use the word ‘God’, we have to be very careful not to take our imaginative images too seriously. At best, they are deceptive. At worst, they are idols.
When we utter the words: ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, we are opening ourselves to the Mystery of God and we are asking for the Divine Presence we call the ‘Spirit’ to enter our poor shabby lives with the Majestic Presence. So guarded are the Jews regarding this Presence that they simply call it ‘Ha Shem’, which is translated as ‘The Name’.
It is in this sense that the lack of figurative content in the words ‘holy’ and ‘spirit’ may be an advantage in making sure that we don’t create a pictorial idol in our minds. That said, we must guard against the reduction of the Holy Spirit to a mere symbol. The ‘Ha Ruach Ha Kodesh’ (Holy Spirit in Hebrew) is working within the Church and in each Christian who is baptized and confirmed. When we say ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, we open ourselves to the Holy Presence of God. Nothing less and so much more!
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of Your love. Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth!