The Year of Saint Paul:
A 20-Part Series – Part 11: The Holy Spirit, Part 1
In the late 1970s, when I was a newly ordained priest, the first of the Star Wars movies was released. At that time I was helping prepare a class of eighth-graders to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
After listening to my explanation of the Holy Spirit, one of the students blurted out, "May the 'Force' be with you!" Not only had he decided that "the Force" was the equivalent of the Holy Spirit, he also pegged me as a Jedi.
I did my level best to straighten things out before the bishop arrived at the parish for Confirmation!
Maybe I'll have more success now if I allow Saint Paul to help us know the Holy Spirit more deeply. True to form, Saint Paul did not write an abstract treatise about the Holy Spirit. However, he does use the word "spirit" or "pneuma" numerous times. The word "spirit" is used 375 times in the New Testament. Some 141 of these references are in Saint Paul's writings.
Saint Paul uses this word variously. Sometimes he uses it to refer to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity; at other times to describe the power of the Holy Spirit; and at still other times to describe what our lives are like once we have encountered the Risen Lord who imparts His life-giving Spirit.
Saint Paul's usages of the word "spirit" are connected to the meanings of that term in the Old Testament. For that reason, I suggest we take a brief detour to review what the word "spirit" means in the Old Testament.
The Hebrew word for "spirit" is rûah. In the first instance it refers to the wind and its effects. This invisible yet powerful force of nature was an indicator of God's mysterious presence and activity. For example, it was "a strong east wind" that parted the waters of the Red Sea so that God's people could escape from the Egyptians (Exodus 14:21, ff.). In Genesis 1:2, we read how God's rûah or spirit moved over the waters at creation. It is not hard for us to see why in the New Testament the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is described as "a strong driving wind" (Acts 2:2).
Rûah not only means "wind" – it also means "breath." It refers to God's life-giving spirit and to the breath of life. Genesis 6:17, for example, says that God blew "the breath of life" into Adam's nostrils. We may remember the vision of the "dry bones" in Ezekiel 37:9. God's spirit came from "the four winds" and brought the dry bones to life. In the New Testament, the Risen Lord "breathed" upon the Apostles, thus imparting the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins (see John 20:23).
In the Old Testament, the word "spirit" can also refer to the higher human faculties of reason and will. A good example is Psalm 77:6. In a moment of spiritual crisis, the psalmist pours out his lament: "I consider the days of old; the years long past I remember. In the night I meditate in my heart. I ponder and my spirit broods." This same word can also refer to the seat of decision making – where plans are made. For example, in Haggai 1:14, we read how the Lord stirred the spirit of the Governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, to make plans to rebuild the temple after the Exile. One's inward spirit can either be humble and steadfast before God, as in Isaiah 57:15 and Psalm 51:12; or full of pride, anger, or other unruly emotions, as in Job 4:9.
It will be important to keep this usage in mind when, in a future column, we study Saint Paul's depiction of the struggle between the flesh and the spirit in the heart of each person.
The Old Testament, of course, speaks often 10 February 21, 2009 of the spirit of the Lord. There are numerous examples of how the spirit of the Lord directs the leaders of God's people and inspires prophets to utter His authentic word to the people. Jeremiah complains that the false prophets – those who told the people only what they wanted to hear – were but "wind" (Jeremiah 5:13).
By contrast, the true prophets were aware of being filled with God's spirit so that they could rightly instruct the people and turn their hearts toward God. After the Exile, expectations ran high for the coming of a messiah who would be fully endowed with the spirit of God. Most of us, for example, are familiar with Isaiah 61:1-3: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me..." In Luke 4:18, Jesus will proclaim Himself the fulfillment of that prophecy.
In the Old Testament the spirit of the Lord was not yet understood to be a distinct person in the Trinity. Nonetheless, the spirit was clearly seen as an extension of God in His work of creating and redeeming.
Parenthetically, let me note that the same is true of God's word. It was not yet seen as a distinct person yet was a powerful extension of God Himself.
The most important breakthrough in the New Testament is the revelation of the Trinity: One God in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus revealed Himself as the Son of God made man. Crucified and risen, Christ imparts the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, to the Church, and even to creation. Living in the Spirit is how we experience that "newness of life" that Christ won for us.
As noted earlier, Saint Paul did not work out a systematic Trinitarian theology, but he understood the Spirit to be personal. Saint Paul closes his second letter to the Corinthians with a Trinitarian formula: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you" (13:14). At the beginning of Mass, the priest will often greet the congregation using these words. At 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Saint Paul tells us that "...there are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit."
These passages accord with others in the New Testament, most notably the baptismal formula found in Matthew 28:19 and the reference to the Holy Spirit at the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15:28. It is the writings of John that most clearly portray the Holy Spirit as a distinct person and not a merely impersonal "force."
Taken together, the writings of the New Testament planted the seed of later Trinitarian doctrine and theology.
Although Saint Paul does not work out precisely how the Spirit is related to Christ and to the Father, he frequently describes the activity of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he sometimes uses the word "spirit" in a manner reminiscent of the Old Testament rûah, that is to say, to refer to the power of God. At other times, he uses "Spirit" to refer to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ, in the Church, and in the lives of individual believers.
In the remainder of this column, we will focus only on what Saint Paul tells us about the Spirit in the life of Christ. In the next installment of this series we will look at the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church and individual believers through the Pauline lens.
The New Testament, as a whole, makes it clear that the Spirit of God rested on Jesus from the beginning. He was "conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit" (see Luke 1:35; Nicene Creed) and was "exalted by the Holy Spirit" in His baptism in the Jordan (for example, Mark 1:10-11) and in the Transfiguration (for example, Matthew 17:1-9). In both events the Holy Spirit confirms Jesus' divine Sonship. Jesus is led by the Spirit to fulfill the mission entrusted to Him by the Father. Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21). His preaching and miracles manifest the Spirit emerging from within Himself.
In the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will overcome the forces of sin and death. Indeed, the Holy Spirit came down "into the very heart of the sacrifice that is offered on the Cross" (John Paul II, Wednesday Catechesis, June 10, 1998; see also On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World, especially paragraphs 19-21).
For his part, Saint Paul confirms that Jesus was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, that is, through power of the Holy Spirit. Again, this is not Paul's "theory" about the resurrection. Rather he is speaking of how we have access Christ's saving power, are justified, and lead a truly Christian life. Thus in Romans 6:4 we read: "We were, indeed, buried with him through baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we, too, might live in newness of life." The word "glory" is, in fact, a reference to the Holy Spirit.
In the Old Testament, the glory of the Lord referred to the shekinah, that is, the luminous cloud that signaled the presence of the spirit of the Lord. In Romans, 8:11, Saint Paul continues to teach about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Resurrection. This time it is in the context of life according to the Spirit, a way of life leading to eternal glory: "... If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you."
The "one" who raised Jesus from the dead was the Father. The way in which the Father accomplished this was the mediation of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit unites us to Christ's resurrection and will impart life to our mortal bodies.
In addition, Saint Paul makes it clear that the Resurrection was more than the resuscitation of Jesus' crucified body. Rather, His body undergoes a marvelous change due to the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is how Saint Paul opens his letter to the Romans. He proclaims himself an apostle of the Gospel about God's Son, "...descended from David according to the flesh but established as Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness through the resurrection from the dead..." (Romans 1:4). Saint Paul maintains the continuity between Jesus' earthly life and His risen life, while not hesitating to assert its newness.
Elsewhere, Saint Paul tells us, in effect, that the Risen Lord was brimming with the living- giving power of the Holy Spirit. So convinced is Saint Paul of this truth, that he makes a statement which, at first glance, may be confusing: "Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17). Here Saint Paul is not denying the distinction between Christ and the Holy Spirit. Nor does he mean to say that Christ and the Holy Spirit are simply two of the ways in which the One God can appear. Nor does Saint Paul set life in the Spirit over against the teaching and redeeming work of Christ, as if one were dynamic and the other static. What he does teach is that the Spirit comes from within the Risen Lord and is bequeathed to believers, as on the first Easter Sunday when Jesus breathed on the Apostles and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit" and then empowered them to forgive sins (John 20:23 as in supra; see also Matthew 16:19; 18:18).
"Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom"
Raised by the glory of God, Christ is so filled with the Holy Spirit that Saint Paul accurately speaks of being redeemed and sanctified either in Christ or in the Holy Spirit. When one is mentioned, the other is not excluded. As a result, we will find Saint Paul saying that we live "in Christ" (Galatians 2:17) or "in the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:11). Nonetheless, the distinction between Christ and the Holy Spirit remains. For while we are in this world we remain apart from Christ (2 Corinthians 5:6); nonetheless, the Spirit of Christ already lives within us (Romans 8:9).
Saint Paul, unlike the Gospels, does not provide us with a description of the extraordinary properties of the body of the Risen Lord (for example, the ability to defy gravity, pass through locked doors, yet able to be seen and touched). Nonetheless, Saint Paul teaches that in the Eucharist we receive Jesus' glorified Body as spiritual food (1 Corinthians 10:3).
In a future column we will discuss more fully Saint Paul's teaching on the Eucharist.
In just a few days, we will enter upon the season of Lent, leading to Holy Week and Easter. Lent is a penitential season when we prepare to enter more deeply into the death and resurrection of Jesus. With the help of Saint Paul, we have been studying the Paschal Mystery of Christ, sometimes called "the masterpiece of the Holy Spirit" (John Paul II, Wednesday Catechesis, June 10, 1998).
My hope and prayer is that, in this Year of Saint Paul, we will allow Saint Paul to remain as our guide through these grace-filled seasons, per crucem ad lucem! Encountering the Risen and Exalted Lord, may we say in the power of the Holy Spirit, "Jesus is Lord!" (1 Corinthians 12:23).