Who Is The Holy Spirit?

Father Gerard Beigel, S.T.D.

At the beginning of his third missionary journey, St. Paul traveled across Asia Minor and arrived in the city of Ephesus where he found some disciples to whom he put the question: "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" And they answered: "We have not so much as heard that there is a Holy Spirit." Paul then prayed and laid hands upon them, and they received the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues and to prophesy (see Acts 19:1-7). This episode, along with every chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, confirms the continuing presence of Jesus in the early Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. The work of the Holy Spirit was clearly manifest among the early Christians: through miraculous interventions that guided the Church and protected her leaders; through charismatic gifts such as prophecy, tongues, healing, and discernment; and through an ever deeper understanding of Jesus Christ and the salvation given mankind through his death, resurrection and ascension.

The work of the Holy Spirit is continually manifested in many ways in the Church and in the lives of individual believers. Yet despite the abundant graces given the Church throughout the centuries by the Holy Spirit, He remains the most mysterious of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Previous essays in The California Mission have pondered what the Holy Spirit does in the Church and in the believer. Now we must consider the deeper question: Who is the Holy Spirit?

Each Person of the Trinity shares fully in the divine nature and so neither the Father, Son or Holy Spirit can be comprehended by man. Yet, in a sense, it is easier for us to have a clearer understanding of the Father and the Son. Spiritual writers from St. Augustine to Pope John Paul II have pointed out that from human experience we understand what is meant by the words "father" and "son", and so by analogy we see something about who the First and Second Persons of the Trinity are and how they are related to one another. But when we consider the name of the Third Person of the Trinity -- the Holy Spirit -- we face two dilemmas. First, we have no direct experience of what a "spirit" is. Second, it seems that the name "Holy Spirit" is not very appropriate for indicating what is unique about the Third Person of the Trinity. Since God is Spirit, isn't it also true that the Father is a holy Spirit? Why, then, is the name "Holy Spirit" the most fitting designation for the Third Person of the Trinity?

None of the above questions can be solved by rational analysis. When we consider the inner life of God and the identity of the respective Persons of the Trinity, we can only proceed in great humility and with much prayer. In this essay we will ponder the identity of the Third Person of the Trinity and why He is fittingly named the "Holy Spirit." We will also discuss the importance of two other names that have traditionally been given to the Holy Spirit: "Gift" and "Love." Our reflections will be guided by the teaching of Jesus in John 14-16 and by St. Augustine's meditation on the identity of the Holy Spirit.

Why is the Third Person of the Trinity Named the "Holy Spirit?"

Names of the Holy Spirit

  • The Spirit of Truth
  • The Spirit of the promise
  • The Spirit of adoption
  • The Spirit of Christ
  • The Spirit of the Lord
  • The Spirit of God
  • The Spirit of glory
  • Our Advocate
  • Our Consoler

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 692-693

In his great work, On the Trinity, St. Augustine considers why the Third Person of the Trinity is named the Holy Spirit. Since God is Spirit and all three Persons of the Trinity share the same divine nature, Augustine notes that the name "Holy Spirit" could also be given to the other two Persons of the Trinity. It would seem, therefore, that this name expresses nothing about the uniqueness of the Third Person of the Trinity. But Augustine argued that this name does, in fact, express what is unique about the Third Person. Since both the Father and Son are Holy and Spirit, Augustine held that the Holy Spirit is named for that which the Father and Son share in common. Thus, the uniqueness of the Holy Spirit is that He is what the Father and Son have in common. The Holy Spirit is the bond of unity between the Father and Son. His name, taken from both what the Father and Son share, expresses perfectly his uniqueness; He is love, mutuality and unity. St. Augustine's profound reflection on the Trinity and especially on the identity of the Third Person of the Trinity brings to light the deepest meaning of the name of the Holy Spirit. His name signifies communion -- the unity, love and vitality that binds the Father and Son together. The Holy Spirit is not named for something that He possesses of Himself. Rather, His very being is communion, unifying love. Jesus testified this same thing about the Holy Spirit:

He [the Holy Spirit] will not speak on His own. He will take from what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore, I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:13-15).

As we ponder the mysterious identity of the Holy Spirit and seek Him in prayer, we must cultivate this profound revelation that the Holy Spirit is the communion and love uniting the Father and Son. By retaining this insight in the depths of our hearts we will grow in our relationship with the Holy Spirit. The very meaning of "Spirit" and "spiritual" implies the power of unifying, of bringing together in love. Thus it is that through the Holy Spirit we receive and grow in the love that is in God.

The Holy Spirit: "Love" and "Gift"

St. Augustine held that in addition to the name "Holy Spirit," there are two other appropriate names for the Third Person of the Trinity: "Love" and "Gift." With regard to the name, "Love," Augustine looked to two New Testament texts: Romans 5:5 and 1 John 4:12-16.

The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)

If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (12). By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit (13). God is love and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (16). (1 John 4:12-16)

Both of these texts confirm that "love" is a property of the divine nature, shared equally by each Person of the Trinity -- "God is love." But at the same time, each text indicates that "love" may be attributed in a unique sense to the Holy Spirit. By seeking the deepest meaning of Paul's assertion in Romans 5:5, Augustine understood that God gives himself to us in the Holy Spirit as love. In other words, the Holy Spirit is love and effects love in us. Love is the primary meaning of who the Holy Spirit is. His primary work in us is to bring about, not knowledge, but love.

In a similar way, Augustine pondered the meaning of 1 John 4:12-16. Verses 12 and 16 state that God's love brings about his abiding presence in us. Verse 13 states that we know this abiding presence because of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is evident, then, that "Spirit" and God's "love" are used interchangeably in this passage. In the words of Joseph Ratzinger, "God communicates himself in the Holy Spirit as love." On the basis of these texts in the New Testament, Augustine taught that the basic work of the Holy Spirit is to create abiding love. The love of God given us in the Holy Spirit proves itself in constancy, in continuity, in abiding. This truth also gives the key for discerning where the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church. Most people think that the Holy Spirit is to be found in new and spectacular manifestations. But in reality, the Spirit is found where there is faithful and abiding love. Creating and sustaining such love is the primary work of the Spirit.

With regard to naming the Holy Spirit "Gift," Augustine looked to chapter four of John's gospel, which describes Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman. In the context of the discussion, Jesus tells the woman: "If only you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, Give me a drink,' and you would have asked him and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10). There is a later passage in John 7 where Jesus invites everyone to come to him and drink this living water, whose identity is clarified by John the evangelist: "Now he said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive" (John 7:38). On the basis of these texts, Augustine identified Jesus as the well out of which the living water of the Spirit comes as pure Gift to man. The Holy Spirit is the Gift of God to man, the gift that alone satisfies the deepest longing of the human heart.

As he reflected on the Holy Spirit's identity as "Gift", Augustine saw that this name also clarifies how the Spirit's procession from the Father is different from how the Son comes forth from the Father. The Holy Spirit "comes from God not as born but as given. Therefore he is not called son because he is neither born' like the first-born' nor created' as we are". Thus, there are three ways of origin from God. The Son comes from God as "being born" or generated. The Spirit comes from God as "being given". And created things come from God as "being created". The Revelation of the Holy Spirit in John 14-16

The identity of the Holy Spirit as Gift and Love is at the heart of Jesus' teaching to his disciples at the Last Supper, which is recounted in John 14-16. The basic purpose of this "Farewell Discourse" of the Lord is threefold: first, to foretell his imminent departure to the Father; second, to leave his disciples the new commandment of love; and, third, to foretell the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would dwell in the hearts of the disciples. Jesus speaks about the Holy Spirit only in four brief passages within these three chapters: John 14:16-18; 14:25-26; 15:26-27; and 16:7-15. Nonetheless, it is clear that the identity and work of the Holy Spirit pervades the entire teaching of Jesus in John 14-16. With regard to the first two themes of the Farewell Discourse that are listed above, the Holy Spirit reveals to the disciples that Jesus is glorified by "going" to his Father in heaven. Likewise, it is the Holy Spirit who empowers the disciples to fulfill the commandment, given them by Jesus, that they should love one another as he has loved them. As we examine more closely this work of the Holy Spirit, we will also see the identity of the Holy Spirit: Gift and Love from God.

After Judas went out from the Last Supper to betray Jesus, the Lord immediately announced the beginning of his "glorification". "Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified" (John 13:31). Jesus explains that this glorification means that he is "going to a place you cannot come" (John 13:33): his return to the Father in heaven. Furthermore, as he leaves them, the Lord gives the disciples "a new commandment:" that "you love one another, even as I have loved you." By living in the pattern of Jesus' love, the disciples will show "all men that you are my disciples" (John 13:34-35). Throughout the Last Supper discourse, Jesus consoles the disciples over the great distress they felt in hearing that he was to leave them (John 13:36; 14:1; 14:5; 14:18; 14:27; 16:5; 16:19-22). The very heart of the consolation he offers is the Holy Spirit.

The first mention of the Holy Spirit in this Last Supper Discourse is in John 14:16-17, which reveals that the Holy Spirit is the gift of the Father: "I will ask the Father and He will give you another Advocate, the Spirit of truth." The Spirit is the gift of the Father, but He comes to the disciples through the prayer of Jesus. Thus, the words that Jesus later uses to describe the giving of the Spirit always reveal that the communion of the Father and Son shines forth in the Gift. So, on the one hand, Jesus can say "the Father will send the Holy Spirit in my name" (John 14:26). But, the Lord also says "I will send the Paraclete to you from the Father" (John 15:26).

The Holy Spirit is the Gift of the Father that reveals the consubstantial communion of Father and Son. Thus, at the depths of the Spirit's identity as Gift, we encounter the simultaneous revelation of the Spirit as Love: the Love that is the bond uniting the Father and Son. It is important to emphasize that we only receive this revelation of love by participating in it ourselves. We know the Holy Spirit as Love only by allowing Him to enter our hearts with the abiding love of the Father and the Son. The love that binds the Father and Son then becomes the love that binds us to the Holy Trinity. Thus, the Holy Spirit is revealed to us as Love precisely as He gives us a share in the inner life of the Trinity; the life of abiding love. Jesus promises all these things immediately following the first mention of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16-17.

I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me nomore, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. He who has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me, and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. (John 14:18-21)

The Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in these verses, but He is the Gift and Love that makes known everything promised in this passage. It is through the outpoured Holy Spirit that Jesus "will come" back to his disciples. It is through the Holy Spirit that they "will see" Jesus. Through the Spirit, the disciples will know that Jesus "lives" and they "will live also". By the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples also "will know" that Jesus is "in the Father" and that they are "in him", and he "in them".

The condition for abiding in this grace is simply that the disciples love Jesus and keep his commandments. To those who love and obey him, the Lord promises that they will be loved by his Father and by him, and that he will dwell in them and reveal himself to them. The further description of all these precious promises is given in John 15, the mysterious and beautiful account of the abiding love that unites the vine and branches, the Lord and his disciples. Chapter 14 clarifies that the Holy Spirit is the One who initiates, maintains and deepens this bond of love between the Lord and his disciples. To enter into this divine life within the abiding love of Father and Son, one must therefore be lifted up by the Holy Spirit into the experience of these divine things. "Arise, let us go hence" (John 14:31). This is the simple invitation that Jesus gives immediately preceding his description of the life of the vine and branches in John 15. And it is only through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us that we can "arise" and ascend into this supernatural life.

John 15 is the heart of Jesus' Farewell Discourse. The chapter describes the abiding communion of love between the vine and branches, between the Lord and his disciples. This love is actually a living participation in the love that binds together the Father and Son. Jesus declares to his disciples: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love" (John 15:9). In his "High Priestly Prayer" to the Father in John 17, Jesus will emphasize further that he has loved the disciples with the very love of the Father.

May they be one, Father, just as you are in me and I in you, may they also be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. I have given them the glory which you have given to me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfectly one, that the world may know that you sent me and that you love them just as you love me (John 17:21-23).

Interestingly, St. Gregory of Nyssa, commenting on this text, declares that the Holy Spirit is the "glory" that makes the disciples one in the bond of unity between the Father and Son. In John 15, Jesus does not state directly that the Holy Spirit is the One who brings the disciples into the abiding communion of love between the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is mentioned explicitly only in the last two verses of John 15. Nonetheless, it should be clear that the Spirit's presence and activity is presupposed in everything that Jesus says about "the vine and branches" in John 15. The Holy Spirit "does not speak from Himself" (John 16:13). Rather, He "will bear witness about me" (John 15:26), and He "will glorify me, because He will take what is mine and make it known to you" (John 16:14). Taking what is Christ's and making it known to the disciples is the essence of the work of the Holy Spirit. And this work especially involves the taking and making known of the communion of love between the Father and Son. Everything, therefore, that Jesus speaks about in John 15 is made known to the disciples and becomes part of their experience through the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit.

The key word in this chapter on the vine and the branches is the word "abide", which is used eleven times in John 15. In order to understand the precise meaning of this word "abide" we must keep in mind two things. First, we must understand what we abide in; the communion between the Father and the Son, so that we have a real participation in the life of the Trinity. Second, we must understand Who gives us the grace and power to abide in this love: the Holy Spirit Himself.

The revelation of the Holy Spirit as Love in John 14-16 flows from the revelation of His identity as Gift. Part of the meaning of love is that it be faithful, abiding, and enduring. As we reflect on this, we can begin to see why the revelation of the Holy Spirit to the world came through Him indwelling the hearts of people. To know the Holy Spirit means that we must experience His presence as abiding, faithful and enduring. The Spirit is given to man, not as a momentary external blessing, but as an interior presence in the depths of the hearts of the disciples. When Jesus speaks explicitly about the Holy Spirit in John 14-16, he stresses that the Holy Spirit will dwell within the disciples. "He will abide with you and will be in you" (John 14:17). As He abides in the hearts of Christians, the Holy Spirit works to maintain and deepen the disciples' union with Jesus and the Father. The Holy Spirit reveals the glorification of Jesus Christ; his return to the Father: in the hearts of believers. The Spirit teaches them and reminds them all that Christ did and taught. The Spirit reveals the love of the Father and Son in the hearts of Christians. In all of this work, the Holy Spirit is faithful, abiding and enduring. He who is the bond of unity between the Father and Son never fails to maintain this abiding love in the hearts of those who believe in Jesus and keep his commandments.

Who is the Holy Spirit?

We have pondered the identity of the Holy Spirit as Gift and Love by reflecting on the teaching of St. Augustine and the words of Jesus Christ in John 14-16. The teaching of Jesus in his "Farewell Discourse" is one of the principal texts in the New Testament that reveals who the Holy Spirit is. Nonetheless, even though we ponder the Lord's words with all our heart, it is still difficult for us to "picture" the Holy Spirit through some easily grasped image. In contrast, the names "Father" and "Son" naturally bring forth images to our imagination and help us to relate in love to the first two Persons of the Trinity. Thus, at the end of this essay we still confront the mystery of the Third Person of the Trinity.

"Who is the Holy Spirit?" Many saints through the ages have concluded that the identity of the Holy Spirit is, in the end, a mystery whose fuller unveiling will only occur at the end of time with the return of Christ in glory. While this is true, the teaching of Jesus in John's gospel does leave us an image that, however mysterious, can help our understanding of the identity of the Holy Spirit. On the eve of his passion, Jesus was anointed in Bethany by Mary, the sister of Lazarus. John has recorded an interesting and suggestive detail of this anointing that is not mentioned in the other gospels. After Mary had anointed Jesus' feet, the evangelist simply notes: "and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment" (John 12:3). Perhaps the best "image" we can form of the Holy Spirit is not something visible after all, but this mysterious "fragrance" that fills the house in which Jesus and the disciples are one. The oil used to anoint Jesus was a perfumed oil. With this in mind, it is very interesting to note that in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the anointing that conveys the Holy Spirit to the candidate is also done with a perfumed oil. Throughout the ages the Church has represented the Spirit's presence as a kind of blessed fragrance that fills every dimension of the Christian life. We might say that the Holy Spirit is the fragrance of that perfume which is the eternal loving union of the Father and Son. When Christ's body was broken open in his passion, this fragrance of the Holy Spirit entered into our world. And as the gospel is proclaimed to new lands and peoples, the fragrance of this ointment continues to fill the house of God, which is the Church.

Used with Permission of Fr. Gerard Beigel - Originally from The California Mission

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