The Splendor of the Holy Spirit

“Images of the Spirit”by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion (Lay Witness, October 1998)

Msgr. Mannion writes: “The Holy Spirit is undoubtedly the Person of the Trinity whom Christians have most difficulty comprehending. … One way to comprehend the Holy Spirit more fully, is by examining the diverse images of the Spirit in the Scriptures and Christian tradition.

“In the Old Testament, the Spirit is spoken of as the breath of God. We read in the very opening passage of the Bible that before creation began, ‘God's spirit hovered over the water’ (Genesis 1:2). From the breath of God came all creation and life. When God created Adam, ‘He breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being.’

“The Holy Spirit is like the breath of God invisibly at work in us, sustaining our lives and filling our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls … Because the Spirit is the life of God in us and in the world, Christians regard life as precious. For this reason Christian disciples are necessarily pro-life.”

Msgr. Mannion then writes, “Another image of the Spirit is that of a strong wind. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Spirit is described as coming upon the apostles like a powerful wind (Acts 2:2). … The Spirit can sometimes be disturbing, demanding, like a great gale impelling us forward and clearing away the spiritual dust and smog that cloud up our hearts and souls.

“The Spirit is also like a blazing fire. This is one of the principal images of Pentecost. We are told that the Spirit came upon the apostles like tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). The Spirit of God is not, of course, a fire that destroys, but a fire that purifies, cleanses, and energizes.

“One of the most recognizable images of the Spirit is that of the gentle dove. The dove … symbolizes patience, gentleness, calmness, peace, and joy. … The Spirit of God is also patient, gentle, calm, and peaceful. Those who live in the Spirit are called to reproduce the same qualities in their lives.

“Another way in which the dove symbolizes the Spirit is that it makes the air in which it moves visible. … In that sense anything that makes air visible is a symbol of the Spirit. When we see leaves slowly falling from a tree, we become aware of the hidden currents of life that surround us.

This balsam mixed with the oil signifies that the fragrance of the Holy Spirit has come upon Christians and that they, in turn, must become fragrant signs of the Spirit

“In the Church's liturgical tradition, the Spirit is associated in a special way with holy oil. Oil has the same meaning that medications and ointments have in ordinary life. They are agents of healing, soothing, cleansing, and protecting. … Like oil, the Spirit is the source of God's soothing, healing, cleansing power. … The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is the Church's most notable manifestation of the Spirit's healing power symbolized by oil.

“Another symbol of the Spirit is pleasing fragrance. … The great preachers of early Christianity spoke of the Spirit as the fragrance of God filling the Church and giving joy to all believers. … When Christians are baptized, confirmed, or ordained, they are anointed with holy oil which contains a beautiful scent called balsam. This balsam mixed with the oil signifies that the fragrance of the Holy Spirit has come upon Christians and that they, in turn, must become fragrant signs of the Spirit in the world by their words, actions, and edifying influences.

“The Spirit may also be spoken of as life-giving light. This is a strong image of the Spirit. The Spirit gives light to our mind; He imparts wisdom and insight. … Significantly, one of the early names of Christian baptism was ‘illumination.’ By being baptized, hearts and minds are washed clean so that the light of the Spirit may be at work in them.

“Another image of the Spirit is living water. … We know that without water there is only lifelessness, aridity, and death. But when rain comes upon the earth, life comes.”

Finally, “The Spirit is also symbolized by the emotions of the heart. … The heart is the symbolic center of the human being, the point from which flows the whole spiritual life. … In Catholic devotion, we venerate the Sacred Heart of Jesus as the source of the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ's heart fills our hearts. The Spirit also makes our hearts restless. St. Augustine expressed this well when he wrote: ‘For you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’ ”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson-ville, Maryland.

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