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Anointing: Biblical Sign of the Spirit

General Audience — October 24, 1990

In his discourse at the Nazareth synagogue at the start of his public life, Jesus applied to himself an Isaian text which says: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me" (Is 61:1; cf. Lk 4:18). It is another symbol which passed from the Old to the New Testament with a more precise and new meaning. This also happened with the symbols of wind, the dove and fire; in recent catecheses we saw that these refer to the activity and the Person of the Holy Spirit. Anointing with oil, too, belongs to the Old Testament tradition. Kings above all others received anointing, but so did priests and sometimes prophets. The symbol of anointing with oil was to express the strength needed to exercise authority. The text cited from Isaiah about "consecration through anointing" refers to the spiritual strength needed to carry out the mission God gives to a person he has chosen and sent. Jesus tells us that this chosen one of God is he himself, the Messiah. The fullness of strength conferred on him—the fullness of the Holy Spirit—belongs to him as Messiah (that is, the Lord's Anointed, the Christ).

In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter refers similarly to the anointing received by Jesus when he recalls "how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power; he went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil" (Acts 10:38). Just as oil penetrates wood or other materials, so the Holy Spirit pervades the entire being of the Messiah-Jesus, conferring on him the saving power for caring for bodies and souls. Through this anointing with the Holy Spirit, the Father has carried out the messianic consecration of the Son.

Participation in the anointing in the Holy Spirit of Christ's humanity is transmitted to all those who accept him in faith and love. This happens on the sacramental level in the anointings with oil, a rite which is part of the Church's liturgy, especially in Baptism and Confirmation. As St. John writes in his First Letter, they have "the anointing which comes from the Holy One," and it "remains" in them (1 Jn 2:20, 27). This anointing constitutes the source of knowledge: "You have the anointing which comes from the Holy One and you have all knowledge" (1 Jn 2:20), so that "you do not need anyone to teach you...his anointing teaches you about everything" (1 Jn 2:27). In this way the promise made by Jesus to the Apostles is fulfilled: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8).

The source of knowledge and of understanding is found in the Spirit, as is the strength needed to bear witness to divine truth. The Spirit is also the source of that supernatural "sense of the faith" which, according to the Second Vatican Council (LG 12), is the inheritance of the People of God, as St. John says: "All of you have knowledge" (1 Jn 2:20).

The symbol of water also appears often in the Old Testament. Taken in a very general way, water symbolizes the life lavished freely by God upon nature and human beings. We read in Isaiah: "I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the broad valleys; I will turn the desert into a marshland and the dry ground into springs of water" (Is 41:18). This is a reference to the life-giving property of water. The prophet applies this symbol to God's Spirit, putting water and God's Spirit in a parallel relationship when he proclaims this oracle: "I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground and streams upon the dry land; I will pour out my Spirit upon your offspring...they shall spring up amid the verdure beside the flowing waters..." (Is 44:3-4). The life-giving property of water symbolizes the life-giving property of the Spirit.

Further, water liberates the land from drought (cf. 1 Kgs 18:41-45). Water also serves to satisfy the thirst of man and of animals (cf. Is 43:20). The thirst for water is likened to the thirst for God, as we read in the Psalms: "As the deer yearns for running streams, so my soul yearns for you, my God. My soul is thirsting for God, the living God; when shall I see him face-to-face?" (Ps 42:2-3; another no less explicit text is Ps 63:2).

Finally, water is a symbol of purification, as we read in Ezekiel: "I will sprinkle clean water on you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you" (Ez 36:25). The same prophet announced the life-giving power of water in a stirring vision: "Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple and I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east.... He said to me: 'This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah, and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh. Wherever the water flows, every sort of living-creature that can multiply shall live..." (Ez 47:1, 8-9).

In the New Testament the purifying and life-giving power of water serves for the rite of baptism already practiced by John, who administered a baptism of repentance in the Jordan (cf. Jn 1:33). But it was Jesus who presented water as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, when on a feastday he exclaimed to the crowds: "Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture says: 'Rivers of living water will flow from within him.'" And the evangelist gives a commentary: "He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive; there was, of course, no Spirit yet because Jesus had not yet been glorified" (Jn 7:37-39).

These words also explain all that Jesus said to the Samaritan woman about living water, water which he himself will give. In a person this water becomes "a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (Jn 4:10, 14).

These are all expressions of the truth which Jesus revealed about the Holy Spirit, of whom "living water" is a symbol. In the sacrament of Baptism this is translated into the reality of being born of the Holy Spirit. Here many other Old Testament passages also come together, such as the one about the water which, upon God's orders, Moses made to flow from the rock (cf. Ex 17:5-7; Ps 78:16), and the other about the spring made available to the house of David for washing away sins and impurities (cf. Zech 13:1; 14:8). The crowning text of all is found in the words of the Book of Revelation concerning the crystal clear rivers of living water which will flow forth from the throne of God and the Lamb. In the midst of the city square and on either side of the river there is a tree of life; this tree's leaves serve to heal the nations (cf. Rev 22:1-2). According to the exegetes, the living and life-giving waters symbolize the Spirit, as John himself states several times in his Gospel (cf. Jn 4:10-14; 7:37-38). In this vision from the Book of Revelation one catches a glimpse of the Trinity itself. The reference to the healing of the nations is also significant. This healing comes through the leaves of the tree, which is nourished by the living and salubrious water of the Spirit.

If God's people "drink this spiritual drink," according to St. Paul, it is like Israel in the desert, which drew "from the rock which was Christ" (1 Cor 10:1-4). From his side pierced on the cross "flowed blood and water" (Jn 19:34), as a sign of the redemptive end of his death which he underwent for the salvation of the world. The result of this redemptive death is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which he gave abundantly to his Church.

Truly "springs of living water flowed from within" the paschal mystery of Christ by becoming in people's souls "a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (Jn 4:14) as a gift from the Holy Spirit. This gift comes from a Giver who is quite easily identified in the words of Christ and of his Apostles: the third Person of the Trinity.