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Symbols of the Holy Spirit

Whitsun BCP

07 May 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

We are given a choice in today’s readings from the Prayer Book of ways in which to picture the coming of the Holy Spirit. The gentle gospel of St. John speaks of a Comforter and elsewhere in his gospel, the Holy Spirit is often portrayed as the harbinger of forgiveness. St. Luke, on the other hand, in writing the Acts of the Holy Apostles gives us a dramatic scene. There is wind, noise, and varied tongues that are understood by a plethora of tribes and nations. We are left with tales of flames, excitement, animation and energy as the fertile spirit reverses the tower of Babel. Certainly it seems the disciples who had hitherto cowered indoors but who now could not contain their joy, confidence and jubilation in Lord, underwent a transformation that clearly involved a little more than a polite cup of tea together. The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost released them from fear – and this lies at the core of divine forgiveness. Pentecost, which was formerly a Jewish harvest festival, is inseparable from Easter. This evening will mark the end of the Easter season, a time when the fruits and trophies of the decisive battle against sin and death are shared out.

There are numerous symbols of the Holy Spirit in the scriptures.

There is, of course water used at baptism.

We also have oil, which reminds us of the ‘anointing Spirit’ used last week at both baptism and confirmation. The use of oil as a seal, but also to ease and release I find particularly lovely, and was much moved last week with the liberal use of the oil of Chrism to release the gifts of the Holy Spirit during baptism and confirmation. Releasing sevenfold gifts.

Then there is another symbol…of fire, recalling the prayer of the prophet Elijah who ‘arose’ like fire, and whose ‘word burned like a torch, brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice at Mount Carmel. And John the Baptist proclaims Christ as the one who ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’.

Yet another image is of cloud and light. The appearances of God, the theophanies of the Older Testament, speak of the cloud, at once both luminous and obscure – the cloud revealing the living God but also veiling the transcendence of his glory. Think of Moses on Mount Sinai, or Solomon at the dedication of the Temple…consider as well the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowing’ the Virgin Mary that she might conceive and give birth to Jesus. Or the mount of the Transfiguration when the cloud overshadows Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John.

Another symbol of the Holy Spirit is his descent in the form of a dove, thus recalling the end of the flood and a sign to Noah that the land was once again habitable.

Our present experience and knowledge of the Holy Spirit comes in the communion we call the Church…it comes in the Scriptures the Spirit inspired…it comes in Holy Tradition to which the Church Fathers are witnesses…it comes in the sacraments of the Church…it comes in prayer…our witnessing of the Spirit comes in the ministry of those called to ordination…and in the lives and actions of God’s holy saints through whom His glory continues to be made visible. In all these various ways, the activity of the Holy Spirit will come in a dramatic way for some, and a quiet way for others. For most of us I imagine there is a balance – a poise. The Spirit who brings order out of chaos at Creation I believe also brings poise and balance to our relationship with God the Holy Trinity.

The Divine Office which is the daily round of prayer used by monks and nuns and priests, provides some beautiful intercessions for the period between the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost as the coming of the Holy Spirit is anticipated.

Last Thursday’s is particularly memorable: ‘Do not allow us to grieve the Holy Spirit by the harshness of our words…may the Spirit make us one with thee.’

But most striking is a petition to Jesus perhaps more aptly offered to the Holy Spirit: ‘Lord Jesus, ascended to the Father, we turn to thee in the night of our anxiety, and the day of our over-confidence: - plead for us with the Father.’ We know about the night of anxiety and how, in those wee small hours not being able to sleep, things can easily get out of proportion and balance. We need the Spirit at such times. Equally we can identify with the day of our over-confidence, when we shut God out of the equation as we project an image of strength, competence, and believe we have the resources to meet all situations from within ourselves. We need to turn to the Holy Spirit at these times as well. For the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, ghostly strength, knowledge, true godliness, and holy fear…will help to bring an ordered poise between the night of anxiety, and the day of over-confidence.
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