Part of the richness of our Catholic sacramental life is its tangibility — its appeal to our senses. Natural elements like water and fire are used in our sacraments to remind us of holy intangibles. Yet these symbols aren’t things that Church folks dreamed up — it’s been the way God has revealed himself since the beginning. God uses familiar things to help us come to know his way, truth, and life. God is pure spirit. Through the ages, God has used a variety of symbols to disclose his closeness to us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes many symbols of the Holy Spirit.
Our Baptism initiates us into the very life of God by power of the Holy Spirit. For us, it is really a new birth.
[A]fter the invocation of the Holy Spirit [water] becomes the efficacious sacramental sign of new birth: just as the gestation of our first birth took place in water, so the water of Baptism truly signifies that our birth into the divine life is given to us in the Holy Spirit. (CCC, 694)
Anointing with oil is synonymous with the Holy Spirit. King David was anointed, and much later, Jesus was called the Christ, which means the one “anointed” by the Holy Spirit. Christians are anointed, too, in Confirmation.
The symbolism of anointing with oil also signifies the Holy Spirit … anointing is the sacramental sign of Confirmation. … Its full force can be grasped only in relation to the primary anointing accomplished by the Holy Spirit, that of Jesus. (CCC, 695)
Fire symbolizes the transforming power of the Spirit. The Catechism cites Scriptural examples, including the words of Jesus and the day of Pentecost.
Jesus will say of the Spirit: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled” [Luke 12:49]!
In the form of tongues “as of fire,” the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples on the morning of Pentecost and fills them with himself [Acts 2:3–4]. (CCC, 696)
Cloud and light
Several Old Testament manifestations of the Holy Spirit took place via clouds and light. The New Testament has more.
The Spirit comes upon the Virgin Mary and “overshadows” her, so that she might conceive and give birth to Jesus [Luke 1:35]. On the mountain of Transfiguration, the Spirit in the “cloud came and overshadowed” Jesus, Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John, and “a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him’” [Luke 9:34–35]! Finally, the cloud took Jesus out of the sight of the disciples on the day of his ascension [see Acts 1:9; Luke 21:27]. (CCC, 697)
In Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, a holy seal on the soul accompanies the anointing.
“The Father has set his seal” on Christ and also seals us in him [John 6:27; see 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13; 4:30]. Because this seal indicates the indelible effect of the anointing with the Holy Spirit … to express the indelible “character” imprinted by these three unrepeatable sacraments. (CCC, 698)
The hands of Jesus remind us how God uses the consecrated hands of priests.
Jesus heals the sick and blesses … by laying hands … [see Mark 6:5; 8:23; 10:16]. … Even more pointedly, it is by the Apostles’ imposition of hands that the Holy Spirit is given [see Acts 8:17–19; 13:3; 19:6]. … The Church has kept this sign of the all-powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit in its sacramental epicleses. (CCC, 699)
The Spirit’s “finger” writes his law in ways both physical and spiritual.
If God’s law was written on tablets of stone “by the finger of God,” then the “letter from Christ” entrusted to the care of the apostles, is written “with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” [Exodus 31:18; 2 Corinthians 3:3]. (CCC, 700)
Finally, Christian art often represents the Holy Spirit as a white dove, as based in Scripture.
When Christ comes up from the water of his baptism, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, comes down upon him and remains with him [see Matthew 3:16]. (CCC, 701)