Since Pentecost is approaching, in today’s post we will consider some of the biblical images for the Holy Spirit, and in so doing, strive to learn more about what God the Holy Spirit does for us. These descriptions do not reduce the Holy Spirit to simply fire, water, or tongues. Rather, the Holy Spirit is described as being like these things but at the same time greater than they are.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting (Acts 2:1).
Note that the text speaks of the Spirit as being like a mighty rushing wind. It but does not say that He is a mighty rushing wind, for the Holy Spirit cannot be reduced to mere physical things, even if He is like them.
This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” Spirit refers to breath. This etymology is preserved in the word “respiration,” which is the act of breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai.
… the Spirit (ruah) of God was moving over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2)
… then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).
The very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam! As we know, though, Adam lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned. As a result, we lost the Spirit of God and died spiritually. St. Paul says plainly that we were dead in our sins (cf Col 2:13).
We see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person, as these first Christians experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does CPR; He brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16).
This image of the rushing wind reminds us that the Holy Spirit brings us back to life and sustains us. If Christmas is the feast of God with us, and Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, then Pentecost is the Feast of God in us. The Holy Spirit, like a rushing wind, breathes life back into us.
Scripture says, And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
The Bible often speaks of God as fire, or in fiery terms:
Moses saw God as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was.
The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Psalm 97).
Scriptures call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29), and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; & Mal 3:3).
So it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. As a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
Fire changes everything it encounters. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged; it may be consumed, converted, purified, warmed, mollified, or steeled—but nothing goes way unchanged.
Thus, God the Holy Spirit, like a Holy Fire, is within us. It is changing and transforming us, burning away sin, refining us, enlightening us, stirring the flame of God’s love in us, and bringing us up to the temperature of God’s glory. He is kindling a fire that gives light and warmth in our darkest and coldest moments. Little by little we become a burning furnace of God’s love and we give warmth to those around us.
As fire, God is also preparing us for judgement, for if He is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus, we must be set afire by God’s love.
So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him one day, to meet Him who is a Holy Fire.
The fire is described as tongues. Through this we learn that one of the chief fruits of Spirit is to help us witness to others. What is a witness? It is one who speaks of what he has seen, heard, and experienced.
Of this need to witness, the Lord said,
You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:48-49).
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning (John 15:26-27).
The spirit comes as tongues in order to strengthen us for our mission, for witness. And, oh, how this witness is needed today! Evil has triumphed because the good have remained silent; pulpits have been silent; parents have been silent. The tongues of fire remind us that God wants bold and fiery saints who are courageous witnesses in a doubting, deceitful, scoffing world.
Many martyrs have died courageously over the years, yet many of us today are afraid because we think that someone might raise an eyebrow at us. Pray for the courage of tongues, the courage to speak.
Jesus often used water as an image of the Spirit:
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified (John 7:37-39).
In the Gospel of John, the giving over of the Holy Spirit is described powerfully, even at the very moment of crucifixion:
Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe (John 19: 30-35).
In this flow of water, the Spirit comes forth in a kind of Johannine Pentecost. It is a classic Johannine play on words that he relates that Jesus “gave over his Spirit,” a phrase that can mean that He died or that He gave us of His Holy Spirit.
The Fathers of the Church also see water as a fitting image for the Spirit.
St. Irenaeus said, Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul … the devil had been cast down like lightning. If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God (Against the Heresies Lib. 3, 17. 1-3: SC 34, 302-306).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem said, But why did Christ call the grace of the Spirit water? Because all things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects, one in the palm tree, another in the vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it. In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each man as he wills. Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit. Although the Spirit never changes, the effects of this action, by the will of God and in the name of Christ, are both many and marvelous. The Spirit makes one man a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one man’s self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another to fast and lead a life of asceticism, makes another oblivious to the needs of the body, trains another for martyrdom. His action is different in different people, but the Spirit himself is always the same. In each person, Scripture says, the Spirit reveals his presence in a particular way for the common good (Cat. 16, De Spiritu Sancto 1, 11-12.16: PG 33, 931-935. 939-942).
Thus, water is another fundamental image of the Holy Spirit, for all things are dependent on water to sustain their existence as well as to activate and empower their gifts. I cannot speak more profoundly than did these two saints and Fathers, so I will let their own words suffice.
We know that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. Scripture says,
… and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22).
Again, note the use of simile and analogy. The Holy Spirit is not a bird or a body of any sort. Rather, He is seen in bodily form as being like a dove. The Holy Spirit is God; He is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.
The image of the Holy Spirit as a dove is reminiscent of the story of Noah:
After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth (Genesis 8:6-11).
The dove announced to Noah that the bitterness and death that overwhelming sin had brought was now at an end. The dove brought Noah a sign of peace and a sign that the promise of God to cleanse the world was now fulfilled. Noah, having passed through the flood within the safety of God’s ark, may walk in newness of life.
So, too, for us. In the Holy Spirit is peace, shalom. The long reign of sin is ended, and grace is now available to us. We, having passed through the waters of baptism, may walk in newness of life. The Holy Spirit descends on us like a dove, bringing peace, promise, and every good grace.
Here we have five images that help us to ponder the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Surely there are other images and other ways of describing His work, but these five speak powerfully.
This video, “Romancing the Wind,” features a performance of a kite ballet: