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The most mysterious and enigmatic Person in the Bible

On the Readings for May 27, 2020, the Sixth Sunday of Easter

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• 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.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Catholics unlike Protestants rarely spoke of the Holy Spirit pre Vat II. Perhaps too mysterious. The Council evoked an epiphany. Suddenly he was everywhere. Byzantine liturgical prayer as quoted impresses that. We also know difference, the Spirit creative and maintaining all being [implied in the Byzantine prayer], and the interior willful presence within us [also implied]. Mystery are [yes in the plural] deemed the essence of beauty. We discern beauty easy enough not the presence of the Spirit. Christ told Nicodemus the wind blows from one direction or other we not knowing from where. Windage is a military term for sighting rifles, in my day the MI Garand. It had apertures for wind compensation. Throw grass in the air take the angle of fall and determine the correction. We don’t have a physical measure for the Holy Spirit’s whereabouts. Aquinas well quoted by author Olson first says it’s Gift. Then Love. Windage for the Holy Spirit’s presence in us may be measured by the unanticipated degree of our similitude to Christ, the Rule of that measure.

  2. 1Peter3,18-19, I have not realized before . Thank you for this . But still , it’s not clear to me. But it is full of wonder . Thankyou for this. Come , Holy Spirit.

  3. “…or fallen angels whose rebellion against God was associated in Jewish tradition with that same flood…”
    Um. Needs elucidation. Considering ‘…Even the demons believe—and shudder’ (James 2:19) and considering their association with the serpent’s ‘i will not serve’ what’s the point of preaching to fallen angels in prison? Does the Jewish or Christian tradition (or even your personal opinion) “leave the door ajar” for the possibility of at least some fallen angels ‘returning’ as a result of the preaching?

  4. Several years ago, Father Mike (since deceased) the pastor at a parish in Wheeling, Illinois, in a sermon on the Holy Spirit recommended bringing the Holy Spirit into ones life by making it a habit to Pray the words “Come Holy Spirit” at least daily. Think he also recommended that one should be aware of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and, as part of the prayer, request the gifts of the Holy Spirit to be active in one life. Until then I really did not think much about the Holy Spirit, but now I follow this advice and more conscious of the importance of the Holy Spirit.

  5. “The wind blows where it wills.”

    Hence, unbounded by time (or place), the Holy Spirit proclaims the Gospel of salvation to all men, even those who once rejected Him, because His love for Man endures, from before all ages.

    How unlimited is the mind and heart…of the Holy One.

    Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us, the fire of your love.

  6. Carol and JN raise interesting takes on Peter’s controversial Christ preaching “to the spirits in prison”. We know Jewish tradition had varied notions of where souls went after death. The Psalms indicate Heaven for the just [Moses and Elijah we know were with Christ]. Sheol was a type of prison image not necessarily Gehenna, the place of the damned. Of all the persons who died before Christ there could conceivably be a ‘Sheol’ where status for many who basically qualify as just was pending. Time for God of course is dissimilar to time for Man. All is presence for God. That may be a way of understanding a revelation to those in Sheol and possible salvation, and the general Resurrection and Judgment of the Dead at End Times. An astute Jicarilla Apache parishioner once asked, “Father, if we are judged when we die how can we be judged again at End Times?”. Double Jeopardy? No. That presence which is God’s omniscience may be divided in segments for Man but not for God.

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