April 28, 2004

The Holy Spirit: Life-Giver

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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‘Breath of God’
The Holy Spirit in the New Testament
Jesus' Role as Communicator of the Spirit
Preparing for Pentecost

As many of you are aware, my place of work and ministry is St. Anthony Messenger Press in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio (USA). My second-floor office in the St. Anthony Messenger building is located directly across a small side street from St. Francis Seraph Church and Friary, which is the headquarters (or "motherhouse") of the St. John the Baptist Province of Franciscan Friars of Cincinnati, to which I belong.

High above the main altar in St. Francis Seraph Church is a circular stained-glass window or skylight with the image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove with wings unfolded as if hovering over the assembly below. This image is my starting point as I muse with you on the role of the Holy Spirit in our world, in our Church and in our personal lives. The image is a good reminder of the Spirit's hovering over you and me—and all God's people—and guiding us day by day ever more fully into the life of God. In just one month (on May 30th) we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the feast on which we commemorate the Holy Spirit's descent upon that very early post-Resurrection Church, gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem. I hope this helps all of us prepare for the Spirit's coming.

‘Breath of God’

But let's go back to the beginning—to the very first image of God's spirit in the Bible. We find such an image already in verse two of Genesis, where the "breath," "wind" or "spirit" of God hovers over the water (1:2). What this primal image suggests to us perhaps is that the foremost role or activity of God's Spirit is that of presiding over the genesis (or birth) of new life. Many times we profess in the Nicene Creed, "We believe in the Holy Spirit, ...the giver of life."

Indeed, clearly symbolized by the spirit's hovering over the primordial waters in the Book of Genesis is the power of God's spirit (breath) to draw forth from the chaotic waters an orderly genesis of new life—first the sea creatures, then the land/air creatures and finally the first human beings. The spirit is present at each new burst of life. Note, for example, the "breath of life" image in Genesis 2:7 at the birth of Adam: "God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being."

There are many other references to the spirit of God in the Old Testament, such as when the prophet Samuel anoints with oil the shepherd boy David (selected by God to be king), and "from that day on the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David" (Samuel 16:13). Usually, such actions of the spirit represent a new initiative—a new development or an entry of new life—in God's plans for the good of humanity.

The Holy Spirit in the New Testament

One of God's biggest initiatives and major instances of new life in the gospels is the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ. It's the emergence of the new Adam, indeed, of a whole new creation. We should not be surprised to see the holy Spirit, "giver of life," profoundly involved in this mystery. When Mary asks how it can happen that she, a virgin, can bear a son who "will be called the Son of the Most High" and be given "the throne of David his father," she is told by the Angel: "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God" (see Luke 1:31-36).

Another dramatic appearance of the Spirit is at Jesus' baptism in the Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist. The holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of the dove and a voice from heaven says, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22). Again, this episode represents the introduction of a new phase of life for Jesus. He is being anointed by the Spirit as Messiah—and the event marks the beginning of his public ministry. He comes up from the Jordan "filled with the holy Spirit" and is "led by the Spirit into the desert" (Luke 4:1), an important arena of testing and new spiritual life.

The power of the Spirit, so visible in the events surrounding Jesus' Baptism, continues to guide him throughout his earthly life, including his passion and death. It's good to keep in mind the image of the dove always hovering above Jesus and leading him forward. The same is true for us. The Spirit, so prominent in our own Baptism, does not suddenly fly away when we come up from the river but remains fully present to us, seeking ever to guide us to new levels of life in God.

Jesus' Role as Communicator of the Spirit

A key part of Jesus' mission on earth is to confer the Spirit and the Spirit's guidance upon his followers. In John's Gospel, Jesus assures the disciples that after he leaves this life he will send the Advocate to them, the Spirit of truth, who "will guide you to all truth" (John 16:13). But suffering and death must come first. Jesus compares his upcoming crucifixion and death to a baptism—an entry into new life through suffering. Recall that Jesus had asked James and John, the two apostles who were seeking a shortcut to glory, if they were ready "to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized" (Mark 10:38)—a clear reference to Jesus' passion and death on the cross.

Just as Jesus, after his baptism in the Jordan, rose up from the river "filled with the holy Spirit," he now rises up from this new baptism and enters a whole new level of life that we call the resurrected life. "Two men in dazzling garments," who appeared at the tomb in Luke's Gospel (24:4-5), announce to the terrified disciples that Jesus now enjoys a new state of life and is not to be found in this place of death: "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, he has been raised" (Luke 24:5-6).

Part of the nature of Jesus' risen life is that he now possesses an enhanced share of life in the Spirit and is linked more profoundly to the life-giving breath of God. Indeed, when Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room on Easter Sunday night, he literally "breathes" on them—just as the Creator had breathed the breath of life into Adam—and says to them, "Receive the holy Spirit'" (John 20:22). Indeed a new creation—the birth of the Church—is taking place! This is a preview of what we will experience more fully on the feast of Pentecost. The new Advocate promised by Jesus is already being introduced to them.

Preparing for Pentecost

In the Acts of the Apostles before his Ascension into heaven, Jesus tells his disciples "not to depart from Jerusalem but to wait for 'the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized by the holy Spirit'" (Acts 1:4-5).

Taking a cue from Jesus, we are wise to assume a spirit of prayerful waiting for the promised Spirit who seeks to make a powerful re-entry into our lives. Immediately before ascending to his Father, Jesus left us with a wonderful promise to ponder and focus upon as we wait for the Spirit: "You will receive power when the Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). These were Jesus' very last words before leaving his disciples.

Once again, it is helpful for us to recall the image of the Spirit-dove hovering over our world, our Church and our individual lives. But we don't want to see the Spirit as too far above us. To make the image more intimate and personally involving, I suggest that we see the Spirit descending upon us, as at Pentecost, by way of small flames of fire hovering over our individual heads, revealing God's love for each of us and God's desire that we come close to God and to each other in unity and love. God is always ready to breathe (or pour) greater life and love into us through the gift of the Spirit. We rejoice in the good news that Paul conveys to the Romans, that "the love of God is poured forth in our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us" (5:5). May the Holy Spirit inject new life in each of us!

Send your feedback to friarjack@franciscanmedia.org.

For your information, there will be no "Friar Jack Catechism Quiz" next month (May 2004). Julie Zimmerman, who has done a great job assembling this feature each month, is discontinuing her work with the column because of new responsibilities at home. She has a new baby, an infant girl adopted from Korea. We ask blessings for Julie and the baby and thank her for the wonderful work she has done for Friar Jack's E-spirations for over two years.

A musing edition of Friar Jack's E-spirations will appear, as usual, near the end of May and the Friar Jack Catechism Quiz will likely be up and running again by mid-June. In case you didn't know, you can find all the past issues of Friar Jack's column by going to Friar Jack's E-spirations Archive (click on www.FriarJack.org and scroll to bottom).

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