CNS PHOTO | CROSIERS
A painting depicts Christ's ascension celebrating the completion of Christ's mission on earth and his entry into heaven.
Again and again at key points in the story of salvation, the Holy Spirit, the power of God, comes revealed in a cloud. In the cloud, God's presence is revealed while the full glory of his transcendence is shrouded.
The Fathers of the Church were clear about what this cloud represented. It was the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The first, perhaps most dramatic, appearance of the cloud was in the desert as a pillar of cloud led the people out of Egypt by day and a pillar of fire led them by night (Exodus 13.21-22).
When the people began to grumble about the lack of food in the desert, God sent them the bread from heaven. When Aaron announced the promise of manna to the people, "they looked toward the wilderness and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud" (Exodus 16.10).
When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law, the cloud covered the mountain and Moses entered the cloud (Exodus 24.15-18). At this most holy time, he remained on the mountain and in the cloud for 40 days and 40 nights.
The cloud continued to lead the people on their journey through the wilderness. As long as the cloud settled on the tabernacle in the house of meeting, the Israelites remained where they were. When it "was taken up," they moved forward on their journey (Exodus 40.34-38).
Eventually, the people of Israel came to the Promised Land and became a settled people. After a long period, they built the Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant.
The dedication of the Temple was a great event. "When the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord" (1 Kings 8.10-11).
In the New Testament, the cloud again emerges at crucial points.
At the Annunciation - the great moment when God enters human history in the flesh - the angel Gabriel tells Mary, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God" (Luke 1.35).
Only once during Jesus' earthly ministry, at the Transfiguration, did the cloud make its appearance. The cloud "overshadowed" Jesus, the three apostles and Elijah and Moses. Out of the cloud, a voice said, "This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him" (Luke 8.34-36).
Forty days after the resurrection, the cloud came again. After Jesus spoke to the apostles, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight (Acts 1.9).
Finally, we have the promise that the Son of Man will come again on a cloud to reap the harvest (Revelation 14.14-16; Luke 21.27).
At times, our imagery of the Holy Spirit has been limited to that of a dove. But many images of the Spirit are present in Scripture, each with something different to reveal about the Third Person. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 694-701.)
The cloud speaks to us of the mystery, the transcendence, the elusiveness of God. God is often presented in Scripture as being very close to us, as a friend or lover. That understanding is of great value. The presence of the cloud at crucial times in the biblical story lets us know that that is not the full story.
As well as being in intimate communion with his people, God is utterly transcendent, totally beyond our comprehension. We need to be shrouded from the full vision of God because having that vision is more than we can handle.
This is the paradox of the Holy Spirit. Like the pillar of cloud, he is right in our midst, leading us to the Promised Land. Yet, he is also a great mystery. We try to touch him and he cannot be grasped. We try to put boundaries around him and we find that the boundaries elude our navigation instruments.
This is the holiness, the otherness of God. More and more as we investigate the Spirit, we will be able to say with Jesus, "The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3.8).