“What’s in a name?” It’s one of the most famous lines from one of the world’s greatest plays. The question is posed by Juliet, who asks it of Romeo, by way of arguing that their love can overcome the bitter rivalry that separates their two families, the Montagues and Capulets.
With Easter now in our rearview mirror, we are rapidly heading toward the next big event on the Christian Calendar: Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the biblical story and in the life of the church.
As we begin to ponder the identity of the third member of the Trinity, and the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives as individuals and in our life together as a congregation, I think it’s worth reprising Juliet’s question: What’s in a name? Because it turns out, there’s a lot to consider.
In the New Testament, the first mention of the Spirit is at the baptism of Jesus, when we’re told that “the Spirit of God” descended upon Jesus. In Greek, the word for “Spirit” here is pneuma, which in English is also translated “breath.” I think the implication is clear: At the start of Jesus’ public ministry, the very breath of God descends upon him, filling him with God’s life and power.
Later, in John’s gospel — in stories that we will soon be looking at both in worship and in Sunday school — Jesus promises that God will send “the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.” The word “Comforter” comes from the Greek word, parakletos, sometimes translated “advocate.”
So, really, we have two questions to consider: one a question of identity (what’s in a name?); one a question of role, or function (what does this figure do?). The short answer to both is that in the gospel record the Spirit is represented as God’s own breath, sent to be with us and for us in the way Jesus himself was sent to be with us and for us, to empower us for the work we’re called to do as the Body of Christ, to comfort us in times of sorrow or stress, to advocate for us in times when we’re feeling vulnerable.
That is a gift worth celebrating! In the Christian calendar, Advent is that season when we prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives. We don’t have a specific word for it, let alone a season dedicated to preparing for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. But we’ll make one of our own, starting on May 21st, with the story of Jesus’s promise to send us the parakletos.