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Who or what is the Holy Spirit?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, July 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Holy Spirit
The spirit of God is part of the story from the beginning.

We’re primed to think of the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, “preceding from the Father and the Son,” who debuts at Pentecost and inaugurates the church. This last idea overlooks that the spirit of God is part of the story from the beginning. God’s spirit is a divine wind or breath blowing over the waters of chaos at Creation. This same breath brings humanity to life. As such, spirit is hardly a latecomer to the party. (Don’t be alarmed by the lower case “s”: neither Hebrew nor ancient Greek employed case distinctions.)

Spirit suggests a subtle and immaterial being, in contrast to the tangible Jesus. But the original spirit in Scripture may not be a being at all: “a principle of action, not a subject,” as scholar John McKenzie describes it. Early references to the divine spirit involve a communication that variously clothes, pours out, leaps upon, or fills up the one who receives it. The spirit can be given or removed, at God’s desire. The spirit can possess a person, as it does to judges in the Book of Judges, who are suddenly snatched up for divine service. This possession isn’t experienced in the negating way of a demon who eliminates the will of the host. Spirit enhances the recipient’s abilities, enabling the person to do feats beyond his or her skill. Such a person is charismatically charged for divine action, literally “inspired”.

Examples of the spirit at work include: the ecstasies of prophets in Saul’s time; the spirit passing from King Saul to David after his anointing; Elisha acquiring a double portion of the spirit given to his predecessor Elijah; Ezekiel’s trances; the bestowal of divine gifts like wisdom and counsel; the divine spirit released on the servant of God in Isaiah’s poems; the promise of a new heart and spirit rejuvenating Israel after the exile. 

The Spirit shows up in the gospels as early as the Annunciation. Mary is told, “The holy Spirit will come upon you… therefore the child to be born will be called… the Son of God.” Christian writers perceive more than a communicating action here; rather, a manifestation that modern translators honor with uppercase distinction. John the Baptist foretells a baptism of Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends dovelike upon him. This Spirit drives Jesus into the desert to encounter temptation. Spirit drives the action in Luke and Acts, showing up fifty-six times as the principal actor. Jesus promises that the arrival of this Advocate ensures that we’ll not be orphans through the end of the age.

Scripture: Genesis 1:2; 2:7; Exodus 31:3; Numbers 11:17, 25; Judges 6:34; 14:6, 19; 1 Samuel 10:10; 19:20-24; 2 Kings 2:9; Psalm 51:13; Isaiah 11:2-3; 42:1; 61:1; Ezekiel 36:26-28; Mark 1:8, 12; Luke 1:35; 3:22; John 14:16-18, 26; Acts 2:1-18

Books: The Other Hand of God: The Holy Spirit as the Universal Touch and Goal, by Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B. (Liturgical Press, 2003)

The Holy Spirit: Setting the World on Fire, edited by Richard Lennan and Nancy Pineda-Madrid (Paulist Press, 2017)

Is Jesus the Messiah?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, July 2019 Categories: Scripture
Jesus the Messiah
Isaiah upgrades salvation to universal dimensions: all nations have a stake in the coming Messiah.

The word MessiahHebrew for “anointed”—has a complex history. Between Messiah and Christ—Greek for “anointed”—lies a thousand years of evolving expectations. Best to review those before addressing the age-old Christian query: Why don’t Jews, reading the same ancient texts, accept Jesus as “Messiah”?

Scholar Raymond E. Brown cautions that messiahs aren’t the only saviors in Israel’s history. Moses, the judges, Nehemiah and Ezra, even young Queen Esther are identified as savior figures. Anyone divinely appointed for the work of rescue is a savior. Israel’s in need of frequent rescue, so the Bible contains a lot of saviors.

The gallery of saviors gains new candidates in the era of kings. Anointed to lead at God’s command, Judah’s kings are messiahs in a nationalistic sense. They don’t save the world; and they only keep the nation safe for their particular generation. Contrast them with the kings of northern Israel, who are viewed more skeptically. Then recall that southern Judah writes the Bible. 

Messianic kingship reaches its height with Judah’s second king, David. His line is endowed with an everlasting, rollover anointing. The salvation coming from David’s house, however, doesn’t extend to the afterlife. Nor is it universal. Davidic kings won’t “save the world”: they’ll keep Judah safe. The problem is, they don’t. Soon after David, Judah is ruled by a string of monarchs who disregard God’s guidance. Two centuries in, the prophet Isaiah views his king Ahaz as gone totally off the rails. 

Isaiah reboots messianic hope. While linked to David’s line, the Messiah will be loyal to God and establish justice and peace. Eden-like conditions will be restored. Isaiah upgrades salvation to universal dimensions: all nations have a stake in the coming Messiah. The prophecy adds a sober note: this Messiah will come in humility and go the way of suffering. Other prophets embrace Isaiah’s vision. 

Messianism undergoes a third overhaul after Babylonian exile and the monarchy’s extinction. Without kings, can there be a Messiah? Biblical history has a big hole in it between the 5th and 1st centuries B.C. By the time of the gospels, it’s clear that anyone still dreaming of a Messiah wants to see David’s kingdom restored and a better world for Israel ensured. Jesus reaches back into prophecy, embracing the image of a suffering servant who saves much more than a precarious political situation. That’s a Messiah few were waiting for, and perhaps few find attractive today.

Scripture: Genesis 49:9-12; 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89:20-38; Isaiah 7:10-17; 9:1-6; 11:1-9; 52:13—53:12; Zechariah 9:9-10; Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 2:1-6; John 7:25-31, 40-52

Books: Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus, by Richard Horsely with John Hanson (Harper & Row, 1985)

The Death of the Messiah, From Gethsemane to the Grave, by Raymond E. Brown (Yale University Press, 1998)

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