What are the symbols of the Holy Spirit?
A Dove. The dove is the most common symbol of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, it was a dove that signaled the end of the flood (Gen 8:8-12). When Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove (Mt 3:16; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32). The head of the dove is often surrounded by a nimbus or round halo-like sphere which may be solid, which represents holiness, or inlaid with three rays which indicates that the Holy Spirit is one of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.
A Tongue of Fire or a Flame. This symbol is taken from Luke’s Pentecost account when a tongue of fire came to rest over the head of each of the disciples and they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3-4). Fire is an age-old symbol for God, whether it be God making the covenant with Abraham in a burning torch (Gen 15:7), speaking to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3:2), guiding the Israelites with a column of fire (Ex 13:21), or sending down fire to consume the holocaust offered by Elijah (1 Kgs 18:38). God’s voice is a fiery flame (Ps 29:7). Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire (Lk 3:16). Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire” (Lk 12:49). The tongue is a metaphor for speech, and those who receive the Holy Spirit are to use their tongues to proclaim Christ and speak words of kindness.
The Wind. This symbol is very difficult to show artistically, but one of the key ways that Luke uses to describe the presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2). The wind represents the Holy Spirit’s share in the creation of the world (Gen 1:2), and the breath or wind of God represents the Holy Spirit’s participation in the creation of human beings (Gen 2:7). The Holy Spirit is present in the whispering wind (1 Kgs 19:12).
A Lamp. A lamp, light, or burning candle is a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s role as Enlightener. The Holy Spirit is the source of our inspiration, insight, mental illumination, revelation, guidance, and direction.
Rays of Light. This image is taken from the Annunciation announcement when the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and she was overshadowed with the power of the Most High (Lk 1:35).
A Cloud. The Holy Spirit is the mysterious and abiding presence of God, and clouds appear frequently throughout both the Old and New Testaments to signify God’s presence.
In the Hebrew scriptures, God was present in the pillar of cloud that led the people through the Red Sea and the desert (Ex 13:21,22; 40:36-38; Num 10:12,34; 1 Cor 10:1-2); the cloud that served as their rear guard when they camped near the Red Sea (Ex 14:19-20); the glory of the Lord that was revealed in a cloud in the desert after the feeding with the manna (Ex 16:10); God spoke to Moses from a cloud on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:9; 34:5); God was present in the cloud that enshrouded Horeb when Moses received the Ten Commandments (Ex 19:16; 24:15-18); a cloud covered the meeting tent where the Lord dwelt in the midst of the people (Ex 33:9,10; 40:34-35; Num 9:15-23); God came down upon Moses in the form of a cloud as he spoke to the seventy elders (Num 11:25); God promised to be present in a cloud over the sanctuary (Lev 16:2); a cloud descended upon the temple in Jerusalem at the time of its dedication (1 Kgs 8:10); and a cloud filled the inner court of the Temple (Ez 10:3-4) In the New Testament, when Jesus was baptized God spoke from the heavens, presumably from behind the clouds (Lk 3:22); when Jesus was transfigured he “entered a cloud” (Lk 9:34) and God’s voice spoke from a cloud (Lk 9:35); when Jesus ascended to heaven he was taken up on a cloud (Acts 1:9); and when he returns on the Last Day he will come on a cloud with great power and glory (Lk 21:27).
Water. The baptism of Jesus is a baptism of the Holy Spirit (Lk 3:16). In Baptism the newly baptized is given to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). The water that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side is the source of this fountain of grace (Jn 19:34). When the water is poured during Baptism, the person receives the Holy Spirit. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Holy Spirit was present in the water from the rock (Ex 17:6; Dt 8:15; Wis 11:4). Through the prophet Isaiah, the Holy Spirit invited the people to approach the Spirit’s fountain of grace: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water” (Is 55:1). The water flowing from the Temple represents the life-giving and regenerative power of the Holy Spirit (Ez 47:1-12). On the Lord’s Day, “living waters shall flow from Jerusalem” (Zech 14:8).
Oil. Sacred Chrism is used at Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, and it imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit, as well as the gift of knowledge (1 Jn 2:20) and truthful teaching (1 Jn 2:27). The Oil of the Infirm reassures someone who is sick or injured of the healing, strengthening, forgiving, and consoling presence of the Holy Spirit (Jas 5:14-15). In the Hebrew Scriptures, priests were consecrated in the power of the Holy Spirit with holy oil (Ex 29:7; 30:30); and anointing oil was used to consecrate the meeting tent, the Ark of the Covenant, and all its furnishings (Ex 30:24-29). Samuel used oil to anoint Saul as king (1 Sam 10:1), and he poured a horn of oil upon David as the future king, after which the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him (1 Sam 16:13); and the priest Zadok anointed Solomon with oil to install him as king (1 Kgs 1:39). The prophet Isaiah said, prefiguring Jesus, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me: he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly” (Is 61:1; Lk 4:18).
The Seal. “The seal is the symbol close to that of anointing. ‘The Father has set his seal’ on Christ and also seals us in him (Jn 6:27; 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30; 5:5). 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 circles to express the indelible ‘character’ imprinted by these three unrepeatable sacraments” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 698).
A Hand. Jesus heals the sick and blesses little children by laying hands on them (Mk 6:5; 8:23; 10:16). In his name the apostles do the same (Mk 16:18; Acts 5:12; 14:3). Even more pointedly, it is by the Apostles’ imposition of hands that the Holy Spirit is given (Acts 8:17-19; 13:3; 19:6). The Letter to the Hebrews lists the imposition of hands among the ‘fundamental elements’ of its teaching” (Heb 6:2). The Church has kept this sign of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in its sacramental epiclesis (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 699).
A Finger. “‘It is by the finger of God that Jesus cast out demons’ (Lk 11:20). If God’s law was written on tablets of stone ‘by the finger of God,’ then the ‘letter of Christ’ entrusted to the care of the apostles, is written ‘with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on the tablets of human hearts’ (Ex 31:18; 2 Cor 3:3). The hymn Veni Creator Spiritus invokes the Holy Spirit as the ‘finger of the Father’s right hand’” (Catechism of Catholic Church, No. 700).
Seven flames, seven lamps, seven doves, a seven-pointed crown, or a seven-branched candelabra. Groupings of seven represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: “wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, fear of the Lord” (Is 11:2), [and piety]; or the seven attributes of the Spirit: “power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:12).
Nine flames, nine lamps, a nine-pointed crown, or a nine-branched candelabra. Groupings of nine represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
About Father Michael Van Sloun
Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minn. As a former school principal, high school instructor and athletic coach, he has always been a teacher. He now teaches the faith as a homilist, Bible study leader, retreat director, pilgrimage guide and author of numerous articles.
© 2006, 2011, Rev. Michael A. Van Sloun
Used with permission.