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The Holy Ghost, the Comforter

Te Deum Laudamus

Sometimes we hear people in church seek to eliminate gendered words for God in our prayers. Now that I am in the pews most of the time, I’ve heard people almost shout out God instead of him in the response “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” It is interesting that Rite I and older versions of the Book of Common Prayer do not have so much of this problem (“It is meet and right so to do,” for example). This is especially salient, I believe, when referring to the third person of the Trinity.

Many of us know that the Hebrew word for spirit is in the feminine gender, ruach; the Greek pneuma is neuter, and the Latin spiritus is masculine. Grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) is not the same thing as biological sex, of course; but ever since we started substituting the word gender for sex in speaking of human beings in English, it has become confusing indeed. But in English, which has very few gendered nouns, if we stick with the traditional translation and use who, there is no masculine gendered pronoun for the Holy Spirit in the Creed at all.

For example, the traditional form of the Nicene Creed follows the Latin in using relative clauses beginning with who or qui, which do not have grammatical gender:

Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem, qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.
And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur: qui locutus est per prophetas.
Who, with the Father and the Son, is worshipped and glorified: Who has spoken through the Prophets.

The original Greek form of the Creed uses present participial phrases — “the one proceeding from the Father and the Son.”

There is no use of the masculine pronoun he for the Holy Spirit in any of these. But somehow in the 1979 prayer book revision, the Standing Commission on Liturgy decided to change the grammatical structure of the sentence to separate independent clauses, which require a pronoun as the subject: “He has spoken through the prophets.”

Another change in the way we speak liturgically of the Holy Spirit occurred when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible changed the translation of parakletos in the Greek to Counselor, instead of Comforter. Comforter seemed too kind and, well, comforting, for the powerful Holy Spirit; after all, Pentecost’s mighty wind and tongues of flame are images of power and fervor.

Arthur John Gossip, writing in The Interpreter’s Bible back in 1952, gives a rationale for changing the traditional translation:

What [Jesus] promises here … is the Counselor … the familiar name in the King James Version, the Comforter, is etymologically a fine and sufficient word. But to modern ears it suggests something softer than the real connotation of the Greek equivalent. No one is so tender as the Holy Spirit — so tender as to be patient. And yet He comes to rally us, to bring us to our feet again, to help us to face life still unafraid.

But in John 16, Jesus is actually comforting his disciples, whom he is about to leave, with the promise of the parakletos, is he not? And comforting may also be empowering, especially when we are sick, weak, depressed, bereaved, confused, or lonely. That we associate comforting with mothers and the feminine more than with fathers and the masculine should not make that a sign of weakness but of God’s infinite love in coming to meet us where we are, wherever we are, whoever we are, created male or female in his image and likeness. Instead of eliminating comforter, I suggest we retain it in our prayers and preaching along with the other now-standard translations of parakletos, such as counselor and advocate. By the way, there are many Episcopal churches dedicated to the Holy Comforter; one is in New Orleans. I would think they would be glad to have this emphasis restored!

Perhaps the next time you are down and sad, recall the words of Isaiah 40: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” and ask the Holy Comforter to come to you and bring you consolation and hope, enfolding you with love, speaking comfortable words to your soul, and lighting your path.


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