Many symbols of the Holy Spirit

By Linda Zahorik | May 21, 2015

Like the apostles, the feast of Pentecost is a day we too pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us. In our churches, religious art and liturgical prayers, we use a variety of symbols to represent the Holy Spirit, all of which come from the Bible.

The most common symbol of the Holy Spirit is a dove. At Jesus’ baptism we are told there was “the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him” (Mark 1:10). The dove as a symbol of purity was used for sacrifice in the Temple. The dove was a foreshadowing of Jesus who would offer himself as a pure sacrifice for our sins.

Fire is another popular representation of the Holy Spirit. Fire intensifies, purifies and transforms. Pope Francis encourages us to have burning zeal for Christ’s mission. In Scripture, we hear that the purest of gold must be tested by fire. If you look at an area that was leveled in a wildfire, you see the power of fire to destroy and to bring to life new growth.

The Holy Spirit is also represented by wind. In some Gospel accounts we are told that a strong, blowing wind swept over the apostles. The wind that appeared on Pentecost was reminiscent of God blowing over the waters at the beginning of creation.

Water signifies birth and life in the Spirit. Recall that at the baptism of Jesus, a dove (representing the Holy Spirit) hovered above him. Water represents the cleansing and life-giving action of the Holy Spirit at Baptism.

Anointing with oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s uniting us with Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one. During ancient times, hot wax was stamped with a seal to indicate a document’s importance. Likewise, in the sacrament of confirmation, each of us is anointed with sacred chrism as the bishop “seals” us with the Holy Spirit.

This Pentecost Sunday may be one of the few times you see so many symbols of the Holy Spirit present at one liturgy at one time. Notice that the priest will be wearing red vestments. Since they usually are reserved for the feast days of martyrs and the feast of Pentecost we seldom see them used at a Sunday liturgy. Throughout the church you may see red fabric reminding you of the fiery presence of the Holy Spirit among us.

The gentle breezes of the Pentecost liturgy may catch upon banners carried in procession, or waft the tones of wind chimes and bells or rise up the smoke of incense.

Pay attention to the use of a sprinkling rite and imagine Jesus in the waters of the Jordan with the Spirit Dove hovering above him.

Perhaps somewhere in your church there will be a large metal vessel with flames springing from it. If that is not the case, remember that the candles used at Mass are an example of fire completely using and transforming an object. As the candle’s “life” is spent for the sake of the liturgy, we should desire that our lives be spent for the Spirit.

Your environment may have flowers in fiery color or even pure white. Look to see if your church environment has a Bird of Paradise within it. This beautiful tropical not only has the shape of a bird but also resembles a burning flame.

On this feast you too can do your part to “spread the Spirit”. Wear something red to church for this feast of Pentecost.

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

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