A colleague of mine regularly gives students in her Christian Belief: Ancient and Modern course a question on the role of the Holy Spirit. The lead in to the question is a headline from The Onion: America’s Finest News Source, February 26, 2003, “God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out Of Trinity.” The whole of the statement from The Onion is as follows:
HEAVEN—Calling the Holy Trinity "overstaffed and over budget," God announced plans Monday to downsize the group by slowly phasing out the Holy Ghost. "Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost's duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision," God said. "The Holy Ghost will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities until His formal resignation from Trinity duty following Easter services on April 20. Thereafter, the Father and the Son shall be referred to as the Holy Duo."
Like much in The Onion it is clever and funny, but there is a reason my colleague uses the (need I mention, fake?) story. It gets to the heart of much confusion over what the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does. I can remember as a boy puzzling over the role of Jesus and his relationship to God, but I read numerous stories about Jesus and my puzzlement, unstated at the time, grew from numerous parables and pericopes which made me wonder whether Jesus was God or a man, or different than God altogether. People seemed to speak about Jesus as God, but he seemed to behave, in the stories I knew, like a man. These puzzles, cleared up over the years, nevertheless grew from a sense of the presence of the reality of Jesus Christ. What I do not recall puzzling over was the Holy Ghost, which nevertheless conjured up cool images to me, much due to the use of “Ghost” and not “Spirit.” Even as a child, the Holy Spirit seemed much like a sidekick to the Dynamic Duo, which, like all good humor, The Onion story gets to far less painlessly and quickly than any theological meditation or reflection.
Why is that the Holy Spirit’s duties are “unclear” to many of us? It is difficult to argue it is because you cannot “see” the Holy Spirit, as we do not “see” God the Father or Jesus the Son either. Is it the sense, though, that the ethereal nature of the “Spirit” or the “Ghost” makes it seem less substantial, or, related, that Father and Son are traditional roles into which we can inject notions, sometimes misguided, of how the Father and the Son act? I must say that I raise these questions without a clear answer, because the texts chosen for Pentecost make it obvious how essential is the role of the Holy Spirit.
It is not just that, as Acts 2:1-11 describes, wondrous acts can be attributed to the Holy Spirit in our presence, but that our proclamation of Jesus as Lord, our various gifts, love, joy, peace, generosity, gentleness, the acceptance of truth, amongst many other fruits have their origin in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Do we aver enough to the presence of the Holy Spirit on a daily basis when we say a gentle word? Do we recognize the absence of the Holy Spirit when we lose control of our emotions or say a cruel word? When we pay attention to our various gifts, acknowledge them, and are attentive to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our daily activities, and those of others, we can read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and agree, “to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit” (1 Cor. 12:7). And when we pay attention to the presence of the Spirit, we become more attentive to the absence of the Spirit in our behaviors, attitudes and words. If there is a sense of absence, is it due to the fact that we have a hard time being present in each moment, that we are moving too fast, that each day is a rush that we need to get through? Let's slow down, take a breath and be attentive. Let’s not phase out the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, but awake to the great gift of the Holy Spirit in the minutiae of each day.
John W. Martens