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June 2019

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Who Is the Holy Spirit?
Amy Ekeh

As we celebrate Pentecost on June 9,
we may ask ourselves, “Just who is the Holy Spirit?”

Perhaps no biblical “figure” is as ambiguous—or as important—as the Holy Spirit. The Bible speaks of the Spirit in many ways, but one thing is always clear: the Holy Spirit binds human beings to God. The Holy Spirit is the creative activity of God, the inspiration of prophetic voices, the ongoing presence of Jesus, and the fuel that powers the great enterprise that we call “church.”

In the Old Testament, the word for “spirit” is the Hebrew word ruah. The word is sometimes translated as “wind” or “breath” as in Genesis 1:2: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” and Genesis 2:7: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” In both cases, God’s ruah, God’s spirit, is a creative, dynamic force. And in both cases, God’s ruah is interacting with the world and ultimately, with people.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God’s spirit is described as God’s presence (Ps 51:11), especially among those who reflect attributes of God such as wisdom (Gen 41:38) or who speak in God’s name such as prophets (Eze 11:5).The Spirit is the power and presence of God. The Spirit is God extending into the human sphere like a wind that blows or a breath that gives life. Like wind, the presence is mysterious but real, invisible but effecting visible change. This dynamism of the Spirit remains consistent in the New Testament, where we learn even more about the Holy Spirit as a distinct presence.

In his farewell address to his disciples, Jesus speaks these puzzling words: “I am going away, and I am coming to you” (John 14:28). How will Jesus do this? “I will ask the Father,” Jesus says, “and he will send you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). It is this “other Advocate”—a translation of the Greek word parakletos, which literally means “to call alongside”—that will be the ongoing presence of Jesus with his disciples. It is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus will continue to “come” to his disciples. This Spirit is a helper, an advocating presence, a comforter (John 14:26).

But as we discover in the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early church, this Comforter is no pillowy, wrap-yourself-up-in-a-quilt kind of comforter. This is no soothing, quiet, everything’s-going-to-be-okay kind of comforter. No, this Comforter is God’s own Spirit! This is God’s presence, God’s power! This is the Spirit of Jesus, the crucified and risen one!

The Holy Spirit is depicted as strong, dynamic, on-the-move, entirely decisive, entirely energizing, prompting the one it falls upon to take risks, calling the one it falls upon to speak up and speak out, asking the one it falls upon to conform oneself to Christ crucified. From the moment the Holy Spirit falls upon the first followers of Jesus in the form of a “violent wind” and “tongues as of fire,” it becomes increasingly clear that this Spirit is a divine force that is thoroughly present to human beings but cannot be controlled by them (Acts 2:2-4).

In Paul’s letters, the Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of God the Father (“the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead,” Rom 8:11) and of Jesus (“the Spirit of Jesus Christ,” Phil 1:19; see also Gal. 4:6). Paul writes of the Spirit as both one with and distinct from the Father and the Son, thus giving us those foundational seeds for understanding God as Trinity (see 2 Cor 13:13). Paul also continues to describe the Spirit’s role in human life. The Holy Spirit dwells in us (1 Cor 3:16), freeing us to live in love (Gal 5), helping us to pray (Rom 8:26), and establishing us as children of God (Rom 8:14-15).

As we celebrate Pentecost this year, we may ask ourselves: What really happened on Pentecost? Why were the followers of Jesus able to speak in such a way that they were understood by all? Why do we say that the church itself was “born” on this day? How can we understand who the Spirit is and what the Spirit does in the simplest of terms? Perhaps all of these questions can be answered by Paul’s words: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

The Holy Spirit is the love of God—unbridled, unbound, totally free, entirely present—creating, revealing, enlivening, breathing—among us, through us, and within us. This is what the Scriptures tell us. This is what our hearts know.

Amy Ekeh is the author of the newest volume of Alive in the Word, Finding Peace: Letting Go of Stress and Worry, as well as two other volumes in this series. She is the associate editor and program developer for Little Rock Scripture Study and writes for Catholic Digest, among other periodicals. Amy is also an instructor with the Catholic Biblical School in the Archdiocese of Hartford.

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New Editions

Amy Ekeh’s newest book, Finding Peace: Letting Go of Stress and Worry is available for personal reading, or for small group faith sharing. Take advantage of our bulk pricing discounts for our Alive in the Word products.

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Newly published offerings of our new editions are in stock this month. Take advantage of our standard bulk pricing for these products: The Gospel According to Matthew, Part One; The Gospel According to Matthew, Part Two; and Panorama of the New Testament

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