Who is the Holy Spirit? As we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost today, this is a question that often comes to mind. Sure, we know about the Holy Spirit. We remember Him every time that we make the sign of the cross. But how many of us would feel comfortable explaining Him to others? If someone asked you, “So what is the Holy Spirit?”, what would you say?
One way that we could explain who the Holy Spirit is would be to look at His name. In the Bible, someone’s name tells us a lot about him or her. For example, the name Jesus means, “God saves.” The archangel Gabriel explains to Mary that our Lord will be named Jesus because, “He will save His people from their sins.” Knowing Jesus’s name tells us a lot about who He is and what He does for us.
Similarly, when Moses meets God in the burning bush, God reveals His name, “Yahweh.” This Hebrew word means, “I am who am.” God’s name tells us that He exists from all time – He is the uncreated one who always has been and always will be. He is above all things and beyond all things.
In the Gospel today, we see Jesus refer to the Holy Spirit as the Advocate. Other translations of the Bible render this word as Counselor, Consoler, or Comforter. Why so many different translations of the same word? The word that our Lord uses here, Paraclitus, is very difficult to translate, and these are all acceptable translations of this tricky word (that’s why in some older translations you’ll just see it left more or less in an Anglicized Greek – the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete). Each of them gives us an idea of who the Holy Spirit is.
First, the Holy Spirit is the Advocate or Counselor. In many languages, the word “advocate” is the same as the word for a lawyer. Like an attorney in court, the Holy Spirit represents us before God. (So any lawyers here will have a good defense the next time they have to listen to one of those bad lawyer jokes. God describes Himself as a lawyer!) Unlike a lawyer in court, though, the Holy Spirit does not stand beside us but instead dwells within us, appealing to the Father on our behalf from within our souls.
In contrast to the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Bible speaks of the Devil as “the accuser” who night and day accuses us before God (Rev 12:10). Imagine a courtroom scene where you are the defendant, the Holy Spirit is your attorney, and the prosecutor is Satan. Satan is good at what he does, and he will produce as evidence against you all of your sins, asking the judge for the highest penalty – eternal condemnation with the Devil and all his angels. The Holy Spirit then defends you not on the ground of any merits you have, which surely will pale in comparison to the mountain of evidence the Devil will be able to produce against you, but instead He will point to Christ, whose sacrifice on the Cross has won for you the mercy of God the Father.
The Holy Spirit acts as our Counselor not only by securing us a place in the world to come, but also by directing us in this world. In this way, the Holy Spirit works through your conscience – provided it has been well formed by studying the teachings of the Church – convicting you of sin in your heart and urging you to follow the law of the Lord. When you are unsure of what paths to take in this life, the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, will be there to help.
The Holy Spirit is also our Advocate when we pray. St. Paul tells us that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). All those who are in a state of grace already have the Holy Spirit within their souls, pleading with God the Father on our behalf. When you do not know how to pray, or when prayer seems dry and ineffective, it is important to remember that just by making time for God you allow the Holy Spirit to carry on this prayer within you.
Another name for the Holy Spirit is the Comforter or Consoler. All of us know that life on this side of Heaven involves a certain amount of sorrows – going through “this valley of tears,” as the “Hail, Holy Queen” prayer describes it. The Holy Spirit is also here to console us amidst these inevitable sorrows of life.
Sometimes, though, the Holy Spirit brings this consolation in surprising ways. Our Lord also describes the Holy Spirit as, “the Spirit of truth.” He is the opposite of the false consolation that the world offers to us. We heard about several of those false consolations in the second reading today, the works of the flesh: immorality, impurity, lust, hatreds, jealousy, fury, drinking bouts, etc. All of these, and much more, are what the world holds out to console the weary heart. But we know that none of these things will ultimately satisfy us, because our hearts are made for so much more. The Holy Spirit consoles us not with the pleasures of the flesh, but rather with the truth. He calls us to something greater, to holiness, to find consolation in the peace that comes from a clean conscience and knowing that we are walking in the Lord’s ways rather than the world’s.
What the Holy Spirit does for our hearts is also what the Church is called to do. The Church is an intercessor. Like the Holy Spirit, She pleads with the Father for all poor sinners, especially by offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for their conversion. Throughout the world, thousands of contemplative religious and lay men and women as well pray, “Have mercy on us and on the whole world!” The Church too is our counselor in forming our consciences and guiding us in what it means to be the Lord’s disciples. And She is also our consoler, offering us the consolation of the forgiveness of our sins, words of hope and wisdom, the saving truths that She has received from Christ, and the greatest consolation of all: our Lord’s true body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist.
The Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles when they were gathered together. In this way, we see that the Holy Spirit is a gift to the Church. Unfortunately, many people want to divide the Holy Spirit from the Church that He exists to guard and guide, claiming their own private inspiration or guidance from Him in contradiction to the saving truths taught by our holy mother, the Catholic Church. Rather, the events of Pentecost today remind us that this Comforter, this Advocate, desires to work through the Church, which is still animated and guided by the Holy Spirit. In the Church we have the surest chance of encountering the authentic consolation of the truth and the authentic advocate – the One who will plead our cause for salvation not because of our own merits but because of Him who died and rose for us.
May our greatest Comforter and our greatest Advocate always be the Holy Spirit, moving and working through the Church.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of the St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
Pentecost Sunday, A.D. MMXVIII