The Holy Spirit: Symbols of the Holy Spirit

You may have seen cars with fish stickers on them.  This is a symbol of Christ dating back nearly two thousand years.  It was a sort of code by which early Christians could identify themselves to each other inconspicuously in a world where being a Christian could be fatal to you and your family and friends.  The Greek word for “fish” is “ichthys” in Greek (ΙΧΘΥΣ).  These are the first letters of Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). Relatedly, the New Testament is, among other things, a kind of underground literature.  It is written by and for people who are often in deadly peril for their faith.  Consequently, it sometimes uses a sort of code language to refer to its sacred beliefs.  So it uses a number of figures in order to refer to the Holy Spirit.  Many of them derive directly from the preaching of Jesus (who himself often speaks in riddles) while other figures come from a sort of shorthand used in the Church to refer to sacred things. 

So, for instance, Jesus speaks of the Spirit frequently using the image of water.  In John’s gospel he refers several times to the Spirit as “living water” (John 4:10-11; 7:38) and, of course, he speaks of being “born again of water and the Holy Spirit” in reference to Baptism (John 3:5).  Revelation uses the same figure in speaking of the “water of life” (Revelation 21:6; 22:1, 17).  Paul says we are “made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians12:13).  He also speaks of being “washed” in the Holy Spirit and of the Spirit being “poured out” upon us (Titus 3:5-6).

Scripture often uses opposing imagery to communicate the fact that God encompasses paradox.  So in addition to water, fire symbolizes the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Elijah, who “arose like fire” and whose “word burned like a torch,” brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mount Carmel (Sirach 48:1; cf. 1 Kings 18:38-39). As we have seen, John the Baptist, who goes “before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), likens the Holy Spirit to fire, as does Jesus (Luke 12:49). On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples in the form of tongues “as of fire” (Acts 2:3-4) and fills them with himself.And Paul tells us, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:1).

Anointing with oil is profoundly tied to the Holy Spirit for multiple reasons.  As we have seen, the very term “Messiah” or “Christ” means “anointed one”. And in the sacraments of Confirmation, Baptism, Ordination to the Priesthood and the Anointing of the Sick, an oil is used.  So “anointing” very naturally became a code synonym for the Holy Spirit. Anointing is a practice of great antiquity and was used on prophets, priests, and kings. Jesus is God’s Anointed in the most profound way because he encompasses all these offices and his anointing is not with symbolic oil but with the Spirit himself who conceived him, empowered him, and raised him from the dead. Now he pours out the Holy Spirit on us who trust in him.

The seal is another sort of code word for the Spirit. John 6:27 tells us that “The Father has set his seal” on his Anointed one and Paul tells us we are sealed in him (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13; 4:3). The image comes from sealing letters and official documents from royalty and conveys the idea both of permanent ownership and genuine authorship. Some theological traditions use it to express the indelible “character” imprinted by Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. The idea is not, of course, subjugation, but belonging as to a family.

Cloud and light are images straight out of the Old Testament revealing both the hiddenness and presence of God. A pillar of cloud accompanies Israel during the Exodus (cf. Exodus 40:36-38; 1 Corinthians 10:1-2) and is with Moses on Mount Sinai (cf. Exodus 24:15-18), and at the tent of meeting (cf. Exodus 33:9-10). It appears when Solomon dedicates the Temple (cf. 1 Kings 8:10-12). As we saw in Chapter 6, the same Greek word used to describe the cloud that “overshadows” the Ark of the Covenant in the Greek Old Testament is used to describe the Holy Spirit conceiving Jesus in Mary’s womb (Luke 1:35). When Jesus is transfigured, Peter, James and John see a vision of Moses and Elijah as they are engulfed in a luminous cloud and God speaks, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:34-35). And it is a cloud that receives the ascending Jesus, who will likewise return in clouds of glory (cf. Acts 1:9; cf. Luke 21:27).  And the holy ones who enjoy the beatific vision and who are filled with the Spirit in heavenly glory are likewise described as a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

Hands signify the Holy Spirit as well. Jesus blesses and heals by laying hands on people (cf. Mark 6:5; 8:23; 10:16) and the apostles do likewise (cf. Mark16:18; Acts 5:12; 14:3). The priest extends his hands over the gifts of bread and wine and calls down the Holy Spirit during the Mass. In addition, the imposition of hands is seen in New Testament celebrations of Confirmation and Holy Orders (cf. Acts 8:17-19; 13:3; 19:6). Indeed, Hebrews speaks of the imposition of hands among the “fundamental elements” of Christian teaching and assumes every Christian is familiar with it (Hebrews 6:2).

The Ten Commandments are described as written with the “finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). Jesus writes on the ground with his finger in the story of the woman taken in adultery, as the Judge who gave the law shows that the Spirit of the law is mercy (John 8:2-11).  Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as the“finger of God” that casts out demons (Luke 11:20). Paul tells us we are a “letter from Christ” written “with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).

Finally, the New Testament again draws on the Old to speak of the Spirit with the image of the dove. Just as Noah’s Flood refers to Baptism (cf. 1 Peter 3:18-22), so Noah’s dove, returning with an olive branch, is the sign of new life and hope (cf. Genesis 8:8-12). The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, comes upon Jesus at his baptism (cf. Matthew 3:16 and parallels). Some Churches reserve the Eucharist in a columbarium: a metal receptacle shaped like a dove. And Christian iconography abounds with doves as the symbol of the Spirit.


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