The earliest Christians believed that Christ, although no longer present in the flesh, remained among them. Many words described this presence, but one of the most common was Spirit. New Testament writers, although they came from a variety of backgrounds and wrote at different times, spoke of two important roles for the Spirit. It drew the individual into the eternal life of Christ, and it drew the risen Christ into the earthly life of the individual.
‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.’ (Jn 14:16)
How has God drawn you closer to divine life?
What gifts has God given you to share with others?
The Spirit is a well-known power in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the divine “breath” that animated Adam and Eve. The Spirit of the Lord inspired any who served God’s mission. It gave speech to Israel’s prophets, wisdom to its kings and valor to its warriors.
The best-known New Testament account of the Spirit appears in this Sunday’s first reading. Amid imagery reminiscent of God’s appearance on Sinai, the disciples received what Luke calls “holy Spirit.” Luke’s phrase, not common in the Hebrew Scriptures, refers certainly to the “Spirit of God” found in ancient texts but also possibly to the “Spirit of the Holy Place,” i.e., the divine presence in the Jerusalem Temple. In Luke’s mind, the Spirit that had once dwelt in the Temple had now taken up residence among Christ’s disciples. God had drawn Aaron and his sons into the divine presence once yearly; now Christ’s disciples dwelled permanently in the Spirit. Although they were one in Christ, the Spirit did not abrogate their individuality. The disciples spoke in many languages to communicate the story of God’s mighty deeds.
Paul likewise understands a twofold role for the Spirit, as both options for the second reading describe. Baptism draws Christ’s disciples into one Spirit, which is Christ’s own life. Christ has conquered death, so participation in his Spirit is salvation from death. But participation in this Spirit does not result in an army of disembodied clones. The Spirit gives each believer a different gift to share. It will also raise each individual body to new life on the last day.
John, too, understands the Spirit as mediator of a twofold relationship between Christ and his disciples. In one of this Sunday’s Gospel options, Jesus literally “breathes” his Spirit into the disciples, mirroring the life God shared with Adam and Eve. Christ’s gift conferred the ability to forgive sins on God’s behalf. In this Sunday’s other Gospel option, Jesus promises that whoever loves him and keeps his commandments will become a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. In John’s mind this indwelling Spirit is the very presence of the Father and Son united in love for each other.
The seasons of Lent and Easter turn our attention to this twofold gift. During Lent, we put aside the habits that hinder our ability to share Christ’s life. The joy of Easter, meanwhile, allows the vigor of Christ’s life to thrive anew within us. Like the first Christians on Pentecost, we have new gifts with which to communicate divine love to all we meet. Through the work of the Spirit, God draws near to creation and breathes life into it anew.