Our Christmas cards, carols, and crèches delight in the characters of the Christmas story. In pageants, there are a lot of parts to go around: Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus; the angels, shepherds, and Magi; perhaps even Elizabeth and Zechariah, Simeon and Anna. But for all the times and ways the story is told, one key participant is almost impossible to find: the Holy Spirit.
This omission is particularly noticeable in our music. We have dozens of carols centered on shepherds, Magi, angels, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, but few that acknowledge the work of the Spirit. It is a surprising omission, for the Gospel of Luke discloses a strikingly Pentecostal Christmas vision, testifying to the Spirit’s engagement with no fewer than six different characters: John the Baptist (1:15), Mary (1:35), Elizabeth (1:41), Zechariah (1:67), Simeon (2:25–26), and, later, Jesus himself (4:18).
Certainly, Luke is the same writer who described the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2), but Luke doesn’t at all believe that was the Holy Spirit’s debut. Luke depicts the entire Christmas drama as fully Trinitarian, involving God the Son, who was born in a manger, God the Father, who sent him, and also God the Holy Spirit, who was mysteriously active in so many moments in the drama.
Not only did Luke write about the Holy Spirit, Luke is himself a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit, whose inspiration graced Luke as he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” in order to “write an orderly account” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:3).
Luke is not alone. Matthew also testified to the Spirit’s work in Jesus’ conception (Matt. 1:18, 20). Isaiah, sometimes called “the fifth Gospel” because of the clarity of its messianic vision, announced that the Spirit of the Lord would rest on this Messiah (Isa. 11:2, 42:1, 61:1). Each Old Testament prophet who gazed into the future with messianic hope testified in advance about Jesus because of the “Spirit of Christ in them” (1 Pet. 1:11). The Spirit was active in, around, and through the entire story, as well as those who told it.
The ‘Double Gift’
An especially vivid Pentecostal account of the Christmas gospel unfolds in the stunning, symphonic words of Galatians 4:4–6, where Paul links two dramatic sendings. First, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son . . . that we might receive adoption to sonship.” Second, “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ ”
Here are two missions, two gifts, two experiences of grace: God sent his Son, and then God sent the Spirit of his Son. The first gift arrived in Bethlehem. The second arrives deep within the souls of believers. The first Christmas gift came then and there. The second comes again and again in the here and now. Indeed, every single time anyone anywhere professes “Jesus is Lord,” we can be grateful for the work of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3).
Everyday examples of double gifts are all around us. In a middle-school math class, it’s a wonder when a teacher starts multiplying and dividing fractions. It’s a second wonder when a student who doesn’t like math suddenly grasps how to do it too. In an art museum, the first marvel is the artwork itself. The second marvel happens when someone who doesn’t like art suddenly discovers its beauty and wants to return. Beauty discovered is a double gift.
What a gift it is during an adoption process when, after months of parental longing and reams of paperwork, the adoption papers are officially sealed. But there is the second gift that parents long for, too, when the adopted child one day whispers, from a deep, mysterious place within, “I love you—we belong together.”
Paul uses this same comparison. God sent his Son “so we might receive adoption,” and God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts to turn the legal adoption into a loving relationship. Adoption flowers into attachment.
It’s an intimate business, this Spirit cry within, issuing forth in the deepest recesses of our souls, as “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom. 8:16). While every defense mechanism of our well-protected selves resists pondering it, there is grace in the fact that God’s Spirit is at work in the deep haunts of our “inner being” (Eph. 3:16).
Sometimes, this mysterious inner working of the Holy Spirit lifts our drooping spirits, interceding “for us through wordless groans” (Rom. 8:26). Sometimes this mysterious inner working does some breaking down before the building up, scattering “those who are proud in their inmost thoughts” (Luke 1:51). In and through it all, God’s Spirit is at work healing our fragile and tender souls.
And so at Christmas, we rejoice. The Spirit not only prepared the way for our Savior to come to us but is also preparing us to come to the Savior. “We have received . . . the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us” (1 Cor. 2:12).
Once we see this, we recognize that this double-gift vision is woven into Luke 2 as well. The first gift is there, “a baby wrapped in cloths” (v. 12). But the second is there, too, as the Holy Spirit guides Simeon to recognize and cherish the newborn Messiah. In fact, in a flurry of Pentecostal fervor, Luke mentions the Holy Spirit in three consecutive sentences (vv. 25–27), emphasizing divine agency in Simeon’s tender celebration.
This “double gift” way of telling the story is transformative.
Without it, it is too easy to tell only half the story, to convey the part about Jesus’ birth then and there but to have nothing to say about God’s work here and now. We tell the story of God’s work through Jesus but convey that we are on our own to respond. We leave our hearers with a lot of imperatives to be better people but without a sense of expectation for how the Spirit works within us to unite us to Jesus.
In contrast, what a joy it is to announce that the same Spirit that came upon John, Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Simeon, the same Spirit that anointed Jesus to preach good news to the poor and raised him from the dead, has now been poured into our hearts (Rom. 5:5). The same God who sent the Spirit to answer the waiting people of Israel is at work restoring creation, healing drooping spirits, giving us Advent hope. The Spirit makes us participants in the Christmas drama.
Expanding our Perception of the Holy Spirit
All of this challenges our often simplistic understanding of the Holy Spirit.
In my own teaching and work with congregations seeking worship renewal, I am often struck by the profoundly different assumptions we hold about the Holy Spirit. Though we read the same Bible, some assume the Spirit’s work is typically perceptible, while others assume that it is typically hidden. Some associate the Spirit with spontaneity, surprise, and emotion; others with order, stability, and new insight. Some are readily aware of how the Holy Spirit works in and through us, while others talk as if the Holy Spirit’s agency picks up where ours leaves off (implicit in phrases like “we need to leave room for the Spirit.”)
Scripture as a whole challenges these simplistic, either/or categories. These Christmas-related Holy Spirit references are especially illuminating. Here we have the Spirit working through visions and dreams as well as through artfully crafted canticles, the beauty of soaring prophetic promises, Paul’s vigorous sermonic touches, and Luke’s “orderly account.”
We see the Holy Spirit at work, often imperceptibly, through centuries of divine providence leading up to this “fullness of time,” as well as in ways that were very perceptible for Luke as he narrated the dramatic story. Here the Spirit is doing a new thing but also affirming with continuity the hope and consolation of Israel now fulfilled in Jesus.
The Spirit works through the miracle of Jesus’ conception and also the miracle of turning stone-cold human hearts into places of tender attachment. All these both/ands challenge simplistic assumptions and invite us into a deeper awareness of the Spirit’s resourcefulness.
Have you ever heard Simeon highlighted as a leading example of Pentecostal experience? Yet there he is, in seasoned old age, with the Holy Spirit working through his faithful obedience to the law, his immersion in the Scriptures of Israel (seen in a song echoing themes from Isa. 40–55), and his trust in God’s enduring promises. Seeing the Holy Spirit’s work in Simeon reminds us that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit—something we tend to forget in today’s cultural climate. Even this one episode is enough to challenge many of our assumptions about the Holy Spirit’s activity.
Praying ‘Come, Holy Spirit’
In the history of Christian worship, whenever awareness of the Holy Spirit’s vital work has been strong, Christians have learned to pray more intentionally for the Spirit-given gifts of recognition and attachment, not only in personal prayer but also in conjunction with public Bible reading, preaching, and celebrating baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Sturdy historic liturgical prayers echo Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, that out of his glorious riches God may strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being (Eph. 3:16).
Only occasionally has this Pentecostal concern been woven into Christmas singing. In the 15th century, one popular carol text, still sung in English cathedrals, punctuated its opening stanza with “Veni Creator Spiritus!” (Come Holy Spirit!). In the 18th century, Charles Wesley’s magisterial hymn “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” culminates with the prayer “By Thine own eternal Spirit / Rule in all our hearts alone.”
Overall, the church has been strikingly silent about the Holy Spirit at Christmas. In the tidal wave of worship changes in the past generation, regular prayers for the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the reading and preaching of the Word and baptism and Lord’s Supper celebrations have too often been swept aside.
How fitting for us to make amends for our neglect. While our songwriters, artists, preachers, and prayer leaders can do so as they shape our Advent and Christmas worship services, each of us, in our own personal and family prayer, can do the same:
Lord God, this Christmas, send your Holy Spirit to give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Help the eyes of our understanding to be enlightened, that we may know the hope of his calling, the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of his power for those who believe. Amen.
John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.