• Acts 8:4-8, 14-17
• Psa 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20
• 1 Pet 3:15-18
• Jn 14:15-21
How would you answer this question: “Who do you think is the most mysterious and enigmatic person in the Bible”?
There are a lot of great answers. Here is mine: the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is indeed mysterious, even somewhat nebulous, and I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a temptation to sometimes think less of him or less about him than of the Father or the Son. But, of course, the Holy Spirit is as fully and completely God as the Father and the Son. He is identified in the New Testament with titles such as Paraclete, the Spirit of adoption, the Spirit of the Lord, and the Spirit of glory (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 692-3). He is represented by or associated with many symbols, including water, oil of anointing, fire, clouds and light, and a dove.
Today’s readings, which turn us even more deliberately toward Pentecost, speak of the Holy Spirit in relation to the sacraments, divine life, and truth.
At first glance, the story of Philip is a perplexing one. Philip, one of the seven men chosen and ordained as a deacon by the apostles (Acts 6:5), was preaching among the Samaritans, to the north of Judea. Having performed signs, including the exorcism of unclean spirits, he apparently baptized many of the people who had “accepted the word of God”. But it wasn’t until Peter and John, who arrived afterward, prayed over and laid hands upon the converts that they “received the Holy Spirit”.
It’s not that Philip’s work was unworthy or faulty; on the contrary, his labors had prepared the way for the apostolic blessing given by Peter and John, who validated and completed—by and through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit—the sacramental work already begun. The Holy Spirit, who is the soul of the Church, unifies and directs the Apostles, their successors, and the members of the Mystical Body of Christ (see Catechism, pars. 797-8).
Peter’s statement about Christ’s death is also difficult and has been the source of much discussion among theologians and exegetes: “Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison…” (1 Pet 3:18-19). The identity of these imprisoned spirits is not completely clear; they may have been those who perished in the Noahic flood or fallen angels whose rebellion against God was associated in Jewish tradition with that same flood. Regardless, we see that the Holy Spirit gives life, and this is why Peter further states, “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now…” (1 Pet 3:21).
The work of the Holy Spirit in the giving of divine life is fundamental, revealed by Jesus when he told Nicodemus, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). This new birth is entrance into communion with God, for as the Apostle Paul wrote, “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
Jesus, in his last great discourse in the Gospel of John, promised his disciples a gift: another Advocate (or Paraclete), “the Spirit of truth”. Just as the Father shows his love by sending the Son, so the Son shows his love by sending the Spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “What is first given is love; that is the first gift. The Holy Ghost comes forth as the substance of love, and Gift is his proper name” (Summa Theologica, I, 38, 2). The Byzantine churches have a great hymn that expresses these truths most beautifully:
“Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, who are everywhere present and fill all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and dwell within us, cleanse us of all stains, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord. Amen.”
(This “Opening the Word” column was originally published in the May 29, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)