Matthew tells us that Jesus saw “the Spirit of God descending like a dove.” A dove is one symbol of the Spirit. It reminds us of God’s actions in the world, starting with the Spirit hovering over the waters of creation (Gn 1:2) and God’s faithfulness to Noah shown when the dove returned with a green branch in its beak.
But the Spirit has other symbols.
Acts of the Apostles shows the Spirit (2:1-4) descending upon the apostles in a wind and tongues of fire. While we may not see symbols of wind in church — unless a window is open or a fan is on — there are fire symbols. From candles on the altar to the paschal candle lit at every funeral, fire reminds us that the Spirit fills us with God’s love and power. The rite of baptism tells us, “Walk always as children of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your hearts.”
At baptism, we were also anointed with oil — another Holy Spirit symbol. Anointing is a time-honored act that sets someone apart for a mission. In the Old Testament, Moses anointed his brother and nephews as priests (Ex 40:13-15). David was anointed king by the prophet, Samuel (1 Sm 16:13). Each Christian is anointed at baptism and confirmation in union with Christ (a title that means “anointed”), the high priest. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that, at his baptism, “the Spirit filled Christ and the power of the Spirit went out from him in his acts of healing and saving” (n. 695).
“The heavens were opened for him,” Matthew says. When heavens open for us, it often means that light pierces a cloud. The image of a cloud filled with light is another symbol of the Spirit. The cloud/light image with its contrast of light and dark appears often in the Old and New Testaments, as with Moses on Sinai or at Jesus’ Transfiguration. As the catechism notes, such revelations of divine power, “now obscure, now luminous, reveal the living and saving God, while veiling the transcendence of his glory” (n. 696). For Christians, light shining in darkness reminds us of Christ’s glory coming to a dark world, just as Christmas shines forth in the cold and dark of winter.
The hand and finger are lesser known Spirit symbols. Both represent God’s work done through Jesus — in the touch of healing and forgiveness. The ministry of touch is central to our sacraments — from the imposition of hands at ordinations, to anointing the baptized, confirmed and the sick. Just as the joining of hands at a marriage shows two lives becoming one, so do the finger and hand show God’s union with us through his Son and in the Spirit.
Maybe other symbols around you today speak of the Spirit, reminding you of God’s deep and personal love for you. Quick, look.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers.”