One of the major images we have of the Holy Spirit is found in the Gospel of John, where Jesus, at the Last Supper, promises His disciples that He will ask the Father to send them another ‘Paraclete’ (14:16) to comfort them when He goes.
This term is often taken to mean a comforter or consoler, but its original meaning in Greek culture around the time of Our Lord, was a defender in a Court of Law, someone who literally stands by your side to rescue you from your accuser. So, it’s not surprising that in its Latin form, the word comes out as ‘Advocate.’ And some form of this word is still used in various European jurisdictions to name an officer of the Court.
Now we come across this term also in a slightly different, but related context, when we think of the concept of advocacy. How important it is for a weak or vulnerable person to have an advocate to stand up for them when their rights are in danger of being violated! Whether an elderly person in a nursing home or a child in the womb, an advocate can be a voice for the voiceless, a necessary defender of the innocent, threatened by the abuse of power.
If we return for a moment to that promise of Jesus mentioned in my opening lines, notice how he speaks of the Father sending ‘another’ Paraclete or Advocate to stand by His disciples! Thus, the first one must be Jesus himself! He is the most amazing comforter and supporter of the vulnerable in His ministry on earth. When the tax collectors and sinners are excluded from decent society, Jesus stands by them by sitting at table in their company. He stands by the lepers and the demoniacs who are likewise ostracised as unclean by the authorities of His day. See how He stands by the woman accused of adultery, pushing aside, and ultimately dismissing, her accusers. What an advocate! He is truly the Greatest Paraclete.
And He and His Holy Spirit have never gone away. The Spirit of Jesus still advocates for us before the throne of God. Remember the literal meaning of the term, “one you call to your side” when you are being pushed around, bullied, stressed out. No doubt the Spirit of Jesus and the Father can come unbidden to help us in a crisis, but the name encourages us to call out: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful.” “I need an advocate for I cannot stand alone!”
And He is delighted to keep His promise, “I am with you all days, even to the end of the age.” We are not to be left orphans. The way to the Father is still the way of Jesus, now through His sanctifying, powerful Spirit, stronger than any human authority if we put our trust in Him. Such is one meaning of this great feast of the Spirit of God!
But there is one more aspect I would like to bring out, one I came across many years ago in a lecture by Wilfred Harrington, the Dominican scripture scholar. He pointed out that once you think of the Spirit as the defence attorney / lawyer / advocate sent by God to defend you against your accuser, then the traditional image of God as the impartial, just Judge sitting in judgement over us from His high bench in heaven, falls apart! Even more so, when you realise we have two defenders, one at either hand to stand by us.
For the other is no less than Jesus! If the Father sends us two defenders to help us when we are being judged by Satan, the great accuser, or by others or even by our own conscience, then our loving Father leaps up from His bench to cry out: “Not Guilty, my Child. Go in peace. All charges are dropped! Congratulations to your Paracletes. What great defenders you have! I recommend you stick with them, as you may need to call on them again!”
There can be few more loving images of the Holy Spirit, or of Jesus, than that of the Paraclete. They are always on hand to stand by us when called!
Kieran Cronin OFM