In today’s Gospel Jesus promises his followers an “Advocate” – the Holy Spirit. Why does He call the Spirit that?
Back up a bit to understand. The Scriptures show a deep appreciation of the depths of human hearts, and one of the things people through history have experienced is the sense of being inwardly “under attack” about failures, wrongdoing, inadequacy, and all the rest of the ways we let God, others, and ourselves down. It became clear to the inspired writers of the Old Testament that this inner oppression was not just an aspect of human psychology but a larger, cosmic force. They used a metaphor from the law courts to describe the experience: it was as if there were an overzealous prosecuting attorney ferreting out wrongdoing and indicting it. So they called this (in Hebrew) ha satan – “the accuser.” Note that it’s a title, not a proper name. But by Jesus’ time this was understood to be the personified “Satan” we all learned about and hear about in the Gospels: the unremitting prosecutor of every real and imagined wrong.
In that context Jesus tells his followers that in their lives and work they will not be left alone to face this unforgiving prosecutor’s investigations and attacks. Jesus, too, draws on the metaphor of the law courts. In His time someone called to appear to answer a charge could bring to court a friend or companion (or paid orator) to argue in his defense – the precursor of our own world of defense attorneys. This person was called, in Greek, a parakletos – an advocate. (The Greek word is the origin of our calling the Holy Spirit the “Paraclete.”) So Jesus tells his followers that they will not have to face the onslaught of self-doubt and self-accusation on their own: they will have a counselor / supporter / advocate to speak and act on their behalf.
What are we to make of this? For one thing, it can help us to identify the feelings or moods that the Advocate is sent to protect us against: feelings of worthlessness, failure, hopelessness, and inadequacy are not simply aspects of an imperfect human psychology but are attacks from the Evil One – attempts by the Enemy of our well-being to deflect us from the good we might do and the joy we might have as God’s chosen ones. The Advocate, Jesus says, is with us to support and protect and guide us – provided we want such help.
Second, this reminds us that we live in a world of unseen but real and powerful agents. Our sense of failure is not just bad biochemistry or bad early experience: it is a reflection of a cosmic mystery: “The spirit who says, ‘No,’ in Goethe’s formulation.” And the resources with which we resist the evil one are not just our own: the Spirit of God is our Advocate and Helper.
Some commentators have noted that Pope Francis has talked about Satan and the devil regularly: he has a clear understanding of the wisdom of our tradition. But people who – unlike Pope Francis –focus on the demonic without a deep confidence in the greater power of the Advocate can get themselves into serious trouble, finding fear rather than trust and hope.
As we prepare for the celebration of the Holy Spirit’s coming to the Church on Pentecost the Gospels ask us to look at whether we appreciate the Spirit’s role in the church and in our lives. Perhaps this can shed some light on Jesus’ promise. Until next week, peace.