As many of you may remember, my place of work is St. Anthony Messenger Press in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. 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 outstretched as if hovering over the assembly below. This image is my starting point as I muse with you about 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.
‘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 (Gn 1:2). This primal image may suggest to us that the foremost role or activity of God’s spirit is the presiding over the genesis (or birth) of new life. As we often 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 (Gn 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” (1 Sm 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, “the 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 Lk 31-36).
Earlier this month on Sunday, January 11, we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We heard these words as written in the Gospel of Mark (1:10-11): “On coming up out of the water, (Jesus) saw the heavens being torn open and the spirit like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.’” 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.
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 of 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.
Placing Ourselves Under the Spirit’s Care
In the quiet of St. Francis Seraph Church where I often attend or celebrate Mass, I have the chance to ask the Holy Spirit’s guidance for our world and for all aspects of our lives. I like to gaze at the ceiling above the main altar and at the circular stained-glass window there with the image of the dove with outstretched wings. With faith in the Holy Spirit’s guiding love for all of us, I pray for this parish church, the worldwide Church and indeed the whole human family over which the spirit watches with love and profound concern. I also pray for the parishes and churches of all our readers.
Turning our thoughts to the war and violence raging in the Middle East and in many other places, as well as to peace-making efforts in these regions, we ask the spirit to help us work for peaceful solutions and ways out of the chaos that we experience. May the Holy Spirit guide us to peace in our homes, neighborhoods and the world at large! Amen.
Dear Friar Jim: Outstanding. I never looked at it that way. Thank you for all the inspirational moments that you have given me this year. I believe those and the grace of God helped me break a terrible habit I had for too many years. Thanks and God bless. Dan
Dear Friar Jim: Thank you for sharing your wisdom…. Your articles make enjoyable reading that usually is what I need that day! The word “yes” has also been important to me at turning points in my life. With the help of God, I intend to serve God in the coming year better…. Bernice
To everyone who has written, thanks for your kind words. You are in my thoughts and prayers. Friar Jim