Being illumined by the Holy Spirit

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The Descent of the Holy Ghost by Titian. Adobe Stock

Scripture begins with the language and imagery of light. In the creation account of Genesis 1, God’s first words are: “Let there be light” (Gn 1:3). We could imagine these words as being spoken by the Father to the Holy Spirit, who was “sweeping over the waters” like a strong wind (Gn 1:2).

We again encounter the same language of wind and light in the scriptural account of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-11. There, Luke describes the sound of a “strong driving wind” that announced the descent of a fiery light, coming upon Mary and the Apostles “like tongues.” Thus, the Holy Spirit swept over them, “filled” them and illuminated them (cf. Acts 2:4). This, too, was God’s creative work.

In light of Pentecost, then, perhaps we could return to Genesis 1:3 and hear it as being spoken also to us: “Let there be light.” Let yourselves, God seems to say, receive the Holy Spirit, be illumined by the Holy Spirit, and fired with the Love that is the Holy Spirit. Letting “light be” in this way would create us anew, as it brings us into a transformative relationship with God. Through such a conversion, we might even become, as Pope Benedict XVI once said, “image[s] and instrument[s] of the love which flows from Christ” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 33).

St. Augustine’s connection between light, creation and conversion

Perhaps St. Augustine can help us to better see these scriptural connections between light, creation and conversion. In his autobiography “The Confessions,” Augustine ponders the mystery of his own creation — his “genesis” and his conversion. Commenting on Genesis 1:3, he writes:

“[A]mong us too God in his Christ created a heaven and an earth. … Before our earth was formed by his teaching it was invisible and unorganized, and we were shrouded in the darkness of ignorance. … But your mercy did not forsake us … for your Spirit hovered over the water; and you said, Let there be light; repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near, repent, and let there be light. And because our souls were deeply disquieted within themselves we remembered you, O Lord, from our muddy Jordan. … Disgusted with our darkness, we were converted to you, and light dawned. See now, we who once were darkness are now light in the Lord” (“The Confessions,” Boulding translation, 13.12, 13).

May 19 – Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-11

Ps 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34

1 Cor 12:3-7, 12-13

Jn 20:19-23

With Augustine, the first day of creation in Genesis becomes an allegory for our conversion. How beautifully he connects God’s words in Genesis, “Let there be light,” with God’s call to repentance in the Gospels! We see how well our repentance, our returning to God’s friendship, will not only illuminate us with a knowledge of God, but with a knowledge of ourselves, too. By this, we are converted and “light” dawns. We will come to see our very selves as the ones to whom God calls out in love. Responding to his call, we will become his “light” — an “image of the love, flowing from Christ.”

A few pages later, contemplating the “lights” of Genesis 1:14 (the sun, the moon and the stars in the sky), Augustine connects this light of conversion to Pentecost. I will close with these beautiful words from Augustine, which charge us not only to receive the light of the Holy Spirit and so to become “images” of God’s love, but to share this “love light” with the whole world — to be an ongoing Pentecost:

“… As though God were once more commanding, Let there be lights in the vault of heaven, there came a sudden noise from on high as though a violent wind were sweeping through, and tongues like fire appeared, separating and coming to rest on each one of them. So they became luminaries in the vault of heaven, endowed with the word of life. Run everywhere, you holy fires, you fires so beautiful, for you are the light of the world. … Run, then, and make him known to all nations” (13.19, 25).

Catherine Cavadini

Catherine Cavadini, Ph.D., is the assistant chair of the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology and director of its master’s program in theology.