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The Church teaches us to pray “Come, Holy Spirit.” Sometimes we pray that the Spirit would be “sent.” Other times that the Spirit be “poured out.” The language varies but the idea is the same– we need God to give us the Holy Spirit. We especially pray for the Spirit to come at a Baptism or Confirmation or an Ordination. We pray for the Spirit when we prepare to receive Holy Communion. We know God will send the Spirit whenever the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments received, but our prayer helps us to anticipate this sending and receive God’s gifts in faith.
Sometimes we pray for the Sevenfold Gift of the Spirit. This traditional idea comes from both the prophecy of Isaiah and the book of Revelation. In Isaiah 11 the Spirit is described this way:
And upon him shall rest the Spirit of the LORD; the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
There seem to be seven characteristics of God’s Spirit given here (“delight” or “joy” being the seventh).
Perhaps this number reflects that which was seen later by the Apostle John, as recorded in the Book of Revelation. John refers to the “seven spirits” a number of times, including chapter 5 verse 6:
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
Some have concluded that the number seven here is more a sign of holiness and completeness than an actual division into certain characteristics or a reference to Isaiah. That’s possibly true. And yet, the Bible is clear that the Holy Spirit gives many gifts. Using a number to speak about the Spirit perhaps reminds us of the great bounty of gifts and the Spirit’s presence as they are shared.
Even more, both Isaiah’s prophecy and John’s revelation speak of the spirits in a context of teaching about Christ. The “him” of Isaiah, upon whom the spirits would rest, is certainly the promised Messiah (Christ). So also, the “Lamb” with the “seven eyes” in Revelation is most definitly Christ Jesus who was crucified. The idea of the fullest expression of the Spirit being found in the person of Christ seems to commend to us the use of this number.
Any conclusion about the exact nature of these numerical references is probably beyond us. I think we do well to simply conclude as the great church father Gregory of Nanzianis did:
“Seven precious spirits are named; for I think Isaiah loves to call the activities of the Spirit spirits.”
The tradition of the seven spirits, or sevenfold gift, has found its way into certain prayers and hymns of the Church and should, in my opinion, be used confidently and regularly. Our congregation includes a prayer for these gifts in our Baptismal Liturgy. And we regularly sing that great hymn of the faith “Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest” with its reference to “graces sevenfold.”
“Come, Holy Spirit” we pray. “Come and gift us, renew us, teach us, lead us, fill us… give us that which we need.” Sevenfold. Manyfold.
May this continue to be our prayer. God will not disappoint.
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