[REFLECTION] The Holy Spirit: God’s breath, our Paraclete
Depiction of the Holy Spirit in St. Peter’s Basilica. VATICAN MEDIA
By Msgr. Euly Belizar Jr., SThD
June 4, 2022
“Now the Spirit is Lord. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 3:17)
“Jesus speaks of the Spirit-Counselor, using several times the personal pronoun ‘he’; and at the same time… he reveals the bonds which unite the Father, the Son and the Paraclete to one another” (St. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, no.8).
God’s breath of life
I once asked some altar servers about a deceased person whose funeral Mass, I was informed, was scheduled that same morning: “Does anyone of you know how he died?” They shook their head. But one sheepishly volunteered: “Maybe he forgot to breathe, Father.” The other boys laughed, if shyly, at my expense. That quip reflects how for ordinary Pinoys the most basic rule of thumb in determining whether or not a person is alive or dead is the presence or absence of breathing.
I could have told them that, despite the dry attempt at humor in the answer, it was not too far from the world view of the Hebrew Scriptures. In Hebrew there is one word that can mean “breath”, “wind” or “spirit”: namely, RUAH or sometimes rendered RUACH. Naturally, despite its meanings other than God’s Spirit in the Old Testament, RUAH is nonetheless related to God’s creative purposes, the giving of existence and the giving of life. An illustration is found in the priestly account of creation that mentions a “mighty wind” that swept over the waters of the abyss (Gen 1:2). The phrase “mighty wind” is translated in many English versions of the Bible as “a wind of God”, a spirit of God” or even more directly “Spirit of God”. Given RUAH’s other meanings, there remains a connection of the “mighty wind” over the waters of the abyss to the Spirit of God. We see this again in the account of the aftermath of the great deluge where we are told: “God remembered Noah and all the animals, wild and tame, that were with him in the ark. So God made a ‘wind’ sweep over the earth and the waters began to subside” (Gen 8:1). “Wind” here is, of course, ‘ruah’. But it could easily refer here to the Spirit of God too who, according to most experts of the Scriptures, is also being depicted here as intensely active in the restoration of order. In a word, God’s ‘ruah’ hovering over the waters of the abyss in Gen 1 and over the waters of the flood sends a message: God is in control even over what appears to be beyond control—chaos.
In our period of history there seem to be various versions of the original abyss and the chaos wrought by man’s sinfulness: collective selfishness of groups and nations, climate change, racist resurgence, blatant disregard of the value of human life through abortion, mass shootings and armed conflicts still raging and so on. It is so hard to see that Someone who is above all is in control. It takes a lot of faith and prayer to do so.
Why is “ruah” so significant for all us descendants of Adam? The Yahwist account of the creation of humankind in Gen 2 answers. In its version God forms man or ‘adamah’ out of clay on the ground and ‘breathes’ into his nostrils the ‘breath of life’ and so man becomes a living being” (Gen 2:7). Here we meet ‘ruah’ again. But this time it is not over the waters of the abyss or the flood but as it is infused through the nostrils of a piece of clay. Because God’s breath is passed into the creature, the creature receives life but not just any life. It is the life of one made in “God’s image and likeness” (Gen 2:6). The creature becomes a human being.
After a long period of time, this story makes a completely different turn. God’s Son is sent into the world to save it out of love (Jn 3:16). He suffers, dies and rises again on the third day (Jn 19:1-20:15-17). But a curious thing happens when he appears for the first time as the Risen One to his closest disciples in John’s Gospel. After greeting them “peace be with you” twice, he “‘breathes’ on them and says, receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive shall be forgiven. Whose sins you shall retain shall be retained” (Jn 20:22).
This time the ‘breath of God’ is given by his Son to a group of human beings he had earlier chosen as his disciples. The giving of the Holy Spirit comes with the giving of the breath of the Son of God. Though it is not so obvious, it harks back to Gen 2:7 when a piece of clay became a human being through the “breath of life” that God gives it, completing his work of creating man. In a word, Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit into his disciples means re-creating them, transforming them into becoming more than God’s “images and likenesses’. Paul the Apostle tells us this staggering truth: “You have not received, again, a spirit of servitude in fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, in whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father'” (Rom 8:15).
What a journey the human being who becomes a Christian has embarked. He has gone from clay to God’s “image and likeness” to “God’s child”. And the indubitable transformation is the work of God’s ‘Ruah’, the Holy Spirit. Through God’s ‘Ruah’ we do not just live; we have God’s life in us.
In the Gospel of John Jesus also makes a declaration that reveals how he sees the Holy Spirit: “I will ask the Father and he will give you ‘another Paraclete’—to be with you always” (Jn 14:16). Again he makes a similar reference in verse 26 to the “‘Paraclete’, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name.” The expression “another Paraclete” (‘allon Parakleton’ in Greek) appears to imply an original or first ‘Paraclete’. In fact, the same John the evangelist insists that Jesus himself is our “Advocate” or “Paraclete”. “But if anyone has sinned, we have an Advocate/Paraclete with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Just One” (1 Jn 2:1). The late St. John Paul II stresses this point. “And he (Jesus) says that the Paraclete is ‘another’ Counselor, the second one, since he, Jesus himself, is the first Counselor, being the first bearer and giver of the Good News. The Holy Spirit comes after him and because of him, in order to continue in the world, through the Church, the work of the Good News of salvation” (St. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem or “Lord and Giver of Life” Encyclical Letter on the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World, no.3).
But what is a Paraclete or a Counselor?
We must bear in mind that in Greek this is part of legal language. It resembles the word “advocate” or legal “counsel”, that is, someone who speaks on behalf of a client in a court of law to defend or further his or her interests. In our so-called democratic societies under the “rule of law”, we are all familiar with the value of good lawyers and good lawyering to obtain justice in circumstances of litigation. The many celebrity cases that the world is exposed to seems to reinforce this fact. Often justice is served through excellent lawyering or trampled upon through poor or ill-prepared lawyers.
The Spirit’s role in our life as disciples is similar to that of an advocate, except that He never suffers from inefficiency or lack of thorough preparation. We are, as it were, weak, powerless and helpless “clients” in the face of an extremely powerful and cunning enemy—the “prince of darkness”, the “father of lies” (Jn 8:44). It is the Holy Spirit who teaches us interiorly the ways of the Lord, which direction his will is leading us to, what Jesus has taught us, how to deal with the deceptions of Satan and how Jesus’ teachings apply to our circumstances here and now. Of this Jesus himself says: “The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit… will instruct you in everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn 14:26). This is because, again in Jesus’ words: “When he comes, being the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16:13). In other words, the Spirit is our Paraclete-Advocate not only because he will speak on our behalf and in our defense but also because he is our teacher of truth. St. John Paul II sees the Holy Spirit’s role as crucial in our time being our Primary Teacher of truth since this role is essential to the task of spreading the Gospel and the greater understanding of Christ’s message. It is the same Holy Spirit that helps us ensure “continuity and identity of understanding in the midst of changing conditions and circumstances” (DeV 4).
In the age of high technology, the social media and the blinding speed with which communication or warfare takes place, we all know how easily we can be deceived by what seems truth but later proves a fake news or a piece of disinformation. Trolls can make or unmake candidacies and reputations many times on the bases of distorted information or embellished narratives. We can never deny the utter necessity of the role of the Holy Spirit in these circumstances since he is the real guide to “all truth” not only in the sense of factuality but especially in the sense of what Jesus truly reveals and truly teaches in the Gospels as it now applies to us.
Without our openness to this Spirit, falsehood will continue to wreak havoc on our individual and collective lives. But if we allow him to lead us, the present and future will be pleasant surprises.
“If you hide your face, your creatures are dismayed; if you take away their ‘breath’, they perish and return to dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps 104:29-30).
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