Symbols of the Holy Spirit

By Linda Zahorik | May 22, 2014

During this season of Easter, the Scriptures have been preparing us for the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. If we at “Living Rite” were to come to your parish this weekend and ask you to point out some picture or symbol of the Holy Spirit, what would you choose?

Most likely you would begin to look for a white dove since it is our most common symbol of the Holy Spirit. It comes from the story of Jesus’ baptism, when Jesus saw “the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him” (Mk 1:10). The Scriptures tells us that the Holy Spirit “rested” upon Jesus and that is the same desire God holds for each us, to rest within us.

The word Spirit translated from Latin means souls, courage, vigor or breath so other symbols have also come to be associated with the Holy Spirit such as wind, fire, water or oil. Each symbol breaks open for us a different aspect of the Holy Spirit, not so much describing what the Holy Spirit looks like, but rather what the Holy Spirit “does.”

The Holy Spirit comes to us as a wind. We are told that at the first Pentecost the upper room was filled with the sound of a rushing wind, like a hurricane. It was that mighty sound that drew the apostles attention. On a wisp of wind the Holy Spirit breathes life into each of us. During the blessing of holy water we hear “At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters.” In earlier centuries the priest would breathe upon the holy water or the person to be baptized, indicating that like the wind one does not see where the Holy Spirit comes from, nor where the Spirit goes, but in the Holy Spirit’s path, change always occurs.

Often if a pictorial depiction of the first Pentecost does not show the dove hovering over the apostles, then tongues of fire will be seen resting over their heads. Fire calls attention to the strength and force of the Holy Spirit. Like fire, the Holy Spirit purifies us as gold and lights within us a passion for holiness that burns away any binding grip that sin imposes on us.

We all recognize the life giving aspects of water. Without water our body dies. Water cleanses us and sustains us. The symbolism of water in relationship to the Holy Spirit is addressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#694) where we are reminded that in one Spirit we were baptized.

The catechism goes on to explain the importance of oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. As we are signed with oil we share with Jesus in the Spirit of truth, of holiness of wisdom. In confirmation, the signing with holy oil is accompanied by the words “Be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” In the past, official documents bore a seal, an imprint made on the wax on the document. It was proof that the document was true and from the hands of the one issuing the document. In a similar way, when we are “sealed” by the Holy Spirit, it gives proof that we belong to God and we are forever part of God’s family.

During these last days leading up to Pentecost, let us be aware not only of symbols in our churches, but in life around us. How is the Holy Spirit preparing us for a great and mighty work of Pentecost?

Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.

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