Catholics often have a hard time understanding the biblical concept of "spirit." As members of a highly structured Church, we adhere to a pattern of strict rules and regulations which guarantee us salvation. Unlike the sacred authors, we believe Jesus set up this structure and passed on these laws because He wanted us to get into heaven.

Jesus' first followers never thought on such levels. Having experienced their faith against the background of the Hebrew Scriptures, they knew the importance of Yahweh's spirit in their lives. This spirit first gave life to the piece of clay God molded from the earth in Genesis 2 and was constantly poured out in massive amounts into special people, like prophets.

It was a force which couldn't be restricted by humans, nor acquired without Yahweh's consent. It was the total opposite of "mechanical." The spirit which made Yahweh "tick" also made certain humans "tick."

Gift of Spirit

As we hear in the first reading, Third-Isaiah was convinced he had been gifted with it (Is 61: 1-2, 1-11). "The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me," he announces, "because Yahweh has anointed me; sending me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives, release to prisoners; and to announce a year of favor from Yahweh, a day of vindication by our God." (Remember how Jesus applies these same words to Himself and His ministry in Luke 4?)

Biblical Jews believed that only this spirit can bring about the relationships which Third-Isaiah refers to as the "mantle of justice" that envelops him. Since prophets are basically concerned with building and sustaining our relationship with God and those around us, God's spirit is essential for them and their work. No structure or set of rules, no matter how good, can ever create and maintain relationships.

That's why Paul, in the earliest Christian writings we possess (I Thes 5: 16-24), reminds his community, "Do not stifle the spirit." He then quickly adds a parallel command: "Do not despise prophets." The Apostle obviously believes prophets are those individuals in our midst who most embody God's spirit. People who are the conscience of their people are also the spirit of their people.

Who are you?

The four evangelists often contrast their faith of spirit-filled relationships with the law-abiding context from which it sprung. They especially do so at the beginning of their Gospels by comparing the personality and ministry of John the Baptizer and Jesus, and highlighting the "baptism" for which both would later be known.

In this week's Gospel (Jn 1: 6-8, 19-28), the Baptizer responds to the question, "Who are you?" by reminding the crowd, "I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize....He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit." (For some unexplained reason, the last part of John's proclamation isn't included in this Sunday's passage. His mention of water only makes sense when it's contrasted with the Spirit.)

Of course, Christians who hear these readings will also understand that the community's prophets aren't the only people who receive God's spirit. Jesus, who more than anyone else in history embodied that spirit, generously passes it on to all who die and rise with Him. According to Paul, we best recognize Jesus' spirit when we reflect on the natural gifts each of us has, especially those gifts which build up and strengthen the body of Christ around us. If they help us form relationships, they must be from the spirit of God.

Just as the authors of the Christian Scriptures often used the concept of the spirit to remind their audiences of what they came from, modern Christian homilists could use it to remind their audiences of what they've developed into.