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9 Symbols of the Holy Spirit used by the Church

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Philip Kosloski - published on 05/16/24

The Catholic Church lists nine symbols of the Holy Spirit that are most frequently used to help us understand the great mystery of the Third Person of the Trinity.

The Holy Spirit remains a mystery to many Catholics, and is often the most difficult Person of the Holy Trinity to fully understand.

Even many of the saints were not able to grasp the full extent of the Holy Spirit’s activity.

The Catholic Church has used a variety of symbols to help describe the action of the Holy Spirit. These symbols have roots in the Bible and give us a glimpse into the hidden workings of the Advocate.

1
Water

Water. The symbolism of water signifies the Holy Spirit’s action in Baptism, since after the invocation of the Holy Spirit it becomes the efficacious sacramental sign of new birth: just as the gestation of our first birth took place in water, so the water of Baptism truly signifies that our birth into the divine life is given to us in the Holy Spirit. As “by one Spirit we were all baptized,” so we are also “made to drink of one Spirit.”Thus the Spirit is also personally the living water welling up from Christ crucified as its source and welling up in us to eternal life.

CCC 694

2
Anointing

Anointing. The symbolism of anointing with oil also signifies the Holy Spirit, to the point of becoming a synonym for the Holy Spirit. In Christian initiation, anointing is the sacramental sign of Confirmation, called “chrismation” in the Churches of the East. Its full force can be grasped only in relation to the primary anointing accomplished by the Holy Spirit, that of Jesus. Christ (in Hebrew “messiah“) means the one “anointed” by God’s Spirit.

CCC 695

3
Fire

Fire. While water signifies birth and the fruitfulness of life given in the Holy Spirit, fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions…In the form of tongues “as of fire,” the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples on the morning of Pentecost and fills them with himself The spiritual tradition has retained this symbolism of fire as one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions. “Do not quench the Spirit.”

CCC 696

4 and 5
Cloud and Light

Cloud and light. These two images occur together in the manifestations of the Holy Spirit…In the Holy Spirit, Christ fulfills these figures. The Spirit comes upon the Virgin Mary and “overshadows” her, so that she might conceive and give birth to Jesus. On the mountain of Transfiguration, the Spirit in the “cloud came and overshadowed” Jesus, Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John, and “a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!'” Finally, the cloud took Jesus out of the sight of the disciples on the day of his ascension and will reveal him as Son of man in glory on the day of his final coming.

CCC 697

6
Seal

The seal is a symbol close to that of anointing. “The Father has set his seal” on Christ and also seals us in him. Because this seal indicates the indelible effect of the anointing with the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, the image of the seal (sphragis) has been used in some theological traditions to express the indelible “character” imprinted by these three unrepeatable sacraments.

CCC 698

7
Hand

The hand. Jesus heals the sick and blesses little children by laying hands on them. In his name the apostles will do the same. Even more pointedly, it is by the Apostles’ imposition of hands that the Holy Spirit is given. The Letter to the Hebrews lists the imposition of hands among the “fundamental elements” of its teaching. The Church has kept this sign of the all-powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit in its sacramental epicleses.

CCC 699

8
Finger

The finger. “It is by the finger of God that [Jesus] cast out demons.” If God’s law was written on tablets of stone “by the finger of God,” then the “letter from Christ” entrusted to the care of the apostles, is written “with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.” The hymn Veni Creator Spiritus invokes the Holy Spirit as the “finger of the Father’s right hand.”

CCC 700

9
Dove

The dove. At the end of the flood, whose symbolism refers to Baptism, a dove released by Noah returns with a fresh olive-tree branch in its beak as a sign that the earth was again habitable. When Christ comes up from the water of his baptism, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, comes down upon him and remains with him. The Spirit comes down and remains in the purified hearts of the baptized. In certain churches, the Eucharist is reserved in a metal receptacle in the form of a dove (columbarium) suspended above the altar. Christian iconography traditionally uses a dove to suggest the Spirit.

CCC 701

Tags:
BibleHoly SpiritPentecost
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