Each year, exactly seven weeks after Easter, the Church celebrates Pentecost, the annual remembrance of God's gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The word Pentecost originally had nothing to do with this gift; Pentecost was a Jewish agricultural festival also known as the Feast of Weeks. The most memorable Pentecost happened to coincide with the gift of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2:1-13.
In Christian theology, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinitarian godhead, alongside the Father and the Son. Orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that the three persons are distinct, co-equal, co-eternal, and one. That doctrine is incomprehensible apart from a Greek philosophical framework that few moderns find useful.
The idea of the Holy Spirit has Old Testament roots, e.g., the prophets receive the Spirit of the Lord. However, in the New Testament all Christians receive the Spirit, which Jesus, in the gospel of John, describes as an advocate who will guide Christians into all truth. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2 and 12 about the gifts of the Spirit, among which he includes faith, wisdom, the power to heal, and the power to prophesy. Christians have debated whether the catalogue of gifts is exhaustive or suggestive. In either case, the purpose of all of the gifts is to aid the community that is the church.
In the early twentieth century, a renewal movement swept across the United States that emphasized the gifts of the Spirit. Out of this movement emerged the modern Pentecostal Churches. In the 1950s, this movement spread to mainline denominations, beginning with the Episcopal Church. Known as the charismatic renewal movement from the Greek charism (i.e., grace or gift), this movement has largely disappeared.
Symbols of the Holy Spirit are often red, evocative of the tongues of fire the book of Acts describes as visible over the heads of the Christians who spoke in foreign languages they did not understand on the first Pentecost. Another symbol of the Spirit is a dove, which the gospel of Luke records descended upon Jesus at his baptism by John (Luke 3:22).
How can contemporary Christians make sense out of the idea of the Holy Spirit?
First, the Holy Spirit emphasizes God's presence in this world. God is not only transcendent (though not necessarily supernatural) but also immanent. In other words, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit affirms that the light of God’s presence, love, and actions are visible in the world. In an image that I find helpful, the first Christian missionaries to China re-conceptualized the Holy Spirit as the Cool Wind, “a more sensuous, evocative image for that which is invisible but felt.” (Thomas Moore and Ray Riegert, The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks)
Second, the Holy Spirit is often unseen because people hesitate to discern God's light, afraid that they may point to an idol instead of the living God. Jesuit Anthony de Mello in Awareness (p. 26) recounts the story of several people stranded aboard a raft that the Amazon has swept several miles out to sea. These people were dying of thirst, ignorant that the mighty Amazon’s waters remain potable several miles out to sea. The sheer volume of the fresh water pouring into the ocean prevents the stream from becoming immediately salty.
Third, Christians regularly affirm that they have received the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism, even as Jesus did. Unction – anointing with oil – symbolizes God's gift of the Spirit to the newly baptized person. Consequently, the gift of the Holy Spirit is actually a relational gift, emphasizing the continuing permanent bond that unites a person with God. Held in God's love, the Christian can live boldly, hopeful of God's guidance and trusting in God's forgiveness. The gift of the Spirit makes life abundant possible today.