There’s something unusual in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles; blink, and you might miss it. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
Yes, the Holy Spirit spoke directly. It’s fairly rare in the Bible to see, “The Holy Spirit said…” followed by quotation marks. There’s an instance a couple of chapters earlier (Acts 10:19-20: “As Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said [to him], “There are three men here looking for you. So get up, go downstairs, and accompany them without hesitation, because I have sent them.”).
There are a handful of other examples throughout the Acts (such as an excerpt from Paul’s farewell speech at Miletus from Acts 20:22-23: But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem. What will happen to me there I do not know, except that in one city after another the Holy Spirit has been warning me that imprisonment and hardships await me”), and the occasional reference elsewhere.
However, for the most part, God the Spirit isn’t as directly verbose as God the Son; we have four Gospels and the Acts with the words of Christ. Nor is the Spirit as directly quotable as God the Father (whose first words in Genesis 1:3 — “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” — are a perfect initiation into His power and essence).
There’s obviously evidence of the Spirit throughout the Bible, in word and deed; in fact, the only direct reference to speaking in the Nicene Creed is in reference to the Spirit, “. . . who has spoken through the Prophets.”
The notion of speaking is surprisingly complex. If a sign says, “We Speak Spanish,” that doesn’t mean that its inhabitants only say the word “Spanish” over and over; in this case, “speak” refers to the way we say something — the underlying building blocks of its message.
I might say something like, “This book really spoke to me”; that doesn’t mean the pages formed a crude mouth and talked to me (no doubt horrifying me and my wife as we’re drifting off after some nighttime reading). In this case, “spoke to me” means it touched an aspect of my experience in a way that resonated deeply.
And someone might use the phrase, “I speak for all of us when I say . . .” That doesn’t mean that your one voice is literally the same as a choir of like-minded individuals; rather, it indicates an underlying truth or certainty that gives you the power to speak authoritatively.
There’s a saying widely (but incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” (The quote has been called “Franciscan” in spirit, and a close version of this appeared in Chapter XVII of his Earlier Rule: “Let no brother preach contrary to the rite and practice of the Church or without the permission of his minister . . . Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”)
Regardless of its origins, “use words if necessary” may be a good encapsulation of our understanding of the Spirit. Yes, the Spirit could use direct words; today’s reading shows that it’s happened in the past. However, that’s seldom necessary. The Faith has grown and prospered for millennia by forging the building blocks of our understanding (the “We Speak Spanish” of speech). It’s forged a connection to our hearts and minds by touching us in unique and special ways (the same kind of speech as “this book spoke to me”). And the Spirit has given us the courage and power to spread the Word and comfort others: it’s the certainty, truth, and clarity inherent in “I speak for all of us when . . .”
Let us rejoice in the ways the Spirit has spoken to us! The Spirit has become part of our lives as Christ promised, and the Spirit speaks to us all . . . sometimes even using words if necessary.