JUNE 1, 2003, SUNDAY AFTER THE ASCENSION: CHAPTER 

JESUS SAID: IT IS COMPLETED. AND BOWING HIS HEAD HE HANDED OVER THE SPIRIT. In this way John records Jesus’ final statement and describes his last breath in words that are meant to convey the fact that his death was the beginning of a new creation. Just as God is described in Genesis as breathing into the formed clay the breath of life, so now Jesus breathes forth the Spirit who restores true life to those who had been dead in sin. Later the Church in its most important profession of faith, the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, was to refer to the Spirit as “the Lord and Giver of life.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes up this expression and relates it to the restoration of the lost likeness to God resulting from original sin. 

The promise made to Abraham inaugurates the economy of salvation, at the culmination of which the Son himself will assume that “image” and restore it in the Father’s ”like­ness” by giving it again its Glory, the Spirit who is “the Giver of life.” (#705)  

During this nine day period between the Ascension and Pentecost the Liturgy impels us to pray for the coming of the Spirit that we might receive his gifts in greater abundance. By meditating on the role and the nature of the Spirit we can hope to become more aware of who it is we seek to receive and what his role means. As we grasp his functions with fuller detail and arrive at some  clarity of understanding we shall appreciate better how to cooperate with his grace. Of course, we realize that here we are touching upon the borders of the greatest of all mysteries, namely, that of the Blessed Trinity, and that much will always remain hidden in the transcendent depths of God’s inscrutable nature. 

Even more in the case of the Holy Spirit than in treating of the Father and the Son, we learn about his person through his functions as manifested in creation and in his role in the economy of  salvation. For both in Scripture and in the writings of the early Fathers the Spirit is viewed dynamically, that is to say, in his activity. We have evidence of this in the writings of St. Irenaeus in the second century. 

And the third article is the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs were taught about God and the just were led in the path of justice, and who in the end of times has been poured forth in a new manner upon humanity over all the earth, renewing man to God. (cited in ‘Sacramentum Mundi’, 3.57 s.v. Holy Spirit.)  

Irenaeus is persuaded that the activity of the Spirit is essential for the work of salvation for, as he goes on to affirm with impressive insistence:   

So without the Spirit there is no seeing the Word of God, and without the Son there is no approaching the Father; for the Son is knowledge of the Father, and knowledge of  the Son is through the Holy Spirit. But the Son, according to the Father’s good pleasure, administers the Spirit charismatically as the Father will, to those to whom he will.   

In fact, since the Son and the Spirit operate so harmoniously, with such unity of action and of purpose, as they achieve their respective, complementary roles that it was not easy to discern always which was proper to whom. One of the early writers, Theophilus, confused the Spirit with the Word. The Arians who had denied the fully equality of the Son with the Father came to deny the equal divinity of the Spirit as well. Some affirmed that he was created by the Son. These positions were rejected by Athanasius. Just as he resisted the group of bishops and theologians who did not accept the obvious meaning of the decisions of the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea., name­ly, that Christ is, in every sense and in all points, God, fully equal to the Father, so also he maintained the full divinity of the Spirit against those who denied that truth. This denial continued stubbornly however, and was defeated only after St Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus witnessed against it in word and deed. Basil was clear in his mind and expressed his position in the liturgy by making use of an ancient doxology that gave equal worship to the Spirit as to the Father and Son. However, he deemed it prudent to avoid an explicit affirmation of homoousios in relation to the Spirit so as to avoid a break with certain bishops who refused that term.  

St. Gregory Nazianzus, his close friend, after Basil’s death, defended explicitly the doctrine that became the Church’s definitive position concerning the divinity of the Spirit. It was he who submitted to the Second Ecumenical Council the express ascription of  homoousios to the Spirit with the same significance and meaning it has relative to the Son.   However, as events demonstrated, St. Basil had been more attuned politically to the temper of the Bishops of the East when he diplomatically avoided the term while implying the doctrine both in the liturgy he celebrated and in his book on the Holy Spirit. For Gregory’s frank use of homoousios resulted in his proposal being rejected by the Council!  In disgust and disappointed he resigned the presidency of the Council and retired to his own more quiet life away from the capital.  

The Council had come up with a less precise formulation which is still used in the Creed named after the Council of 381 A.D. While the word homoousios is applied to the Son in the Creed, it is not used in relation to the Holy Spirit. Nor is he affirmed to be God as Gregory wished to be done   Rather, in the part of the Creed treating of the Spirt the text states:  

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, and who spoke through the prophets. 

This expresses an equality of worship of all three persons, in words that are somewhat vague; it suggests an equality of substance as well, but it does not state it expressly as the Nicene Council did regarding the Son. As a result it allowed that group of Bishops who had reservations as to the full divinity of the Spirit to accept the Council’s position and thus to avoid separating from its fellowship. Nonetheless, it was his witness that won out in the end. The interpretation given by the Church to this text was that represented by St. Gregory. Both in the East and the West Gregory’s views as stated in his famous Theological Orations were accepted as expressing the mind of the Council. So true is this that except for some scholars few advert to the omission of these explicit affirmations in the Creed. Most of us read into the text what we have always believed along with the Church; we simply understand it to set forth the Divinity and fully equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son.(cf John McGucken, “Gregory Nazianzus”, 352 ff) In fact, it was largely on the basis of these five Orations that the author came to be known as St. Gregory the Theologian so fully do they set forth the doctrine of the Trinity that the Church recognizes as her own belief. 

The accounts of the relation of the Spirit to Jesus which is proclaimed in the Liturgy during these ten days after the Ascension and prior to Pentecost, are mostly taken from the Gospel of John’s  great Discourse at the Last Supper. Our Holy Father John Paul II has indicated  that it is here that “the highest point of the revelation of the Trinity is reached.” (Donum et Vivificantem, #9) The reason he gives for this view is that this discourse of our Lord is replete with references to the Holy Spirit. In particular, it includes the cause for the coming of the Spirit in that Jesus says “If I go [by dying on the cross, that is] I will send him to you.”(16:7). The Spirit will come as a result of Christ’s offering on the cross in fulfilling the Father’s will. This and the other  passages provide much material for gaining an idea of the relations of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, the roles he fulfills in the Church, in the spiritual life of individuals and some of the characteristics ascribed to the Spirit. The Holy Father lays special emphasis on the fact that the revelations made in these pages serves as a preparation for the Trinitarian formula of baptism. And it is through this sacrament that the baptized is made capable of sharing in the intimate life of God himself. 

This inner life of God is love and this love as it unites the Father and Son is personalized in the Holy Spirit. As St. Thomas Aquinas shows, while each of the divine persons is, considered essentially, love, when viewed notionally their love spirates that is to say, breathes out the love that is the Holy Spirit so that he is properly named Love. When he is imparted to us it is divine love itself as the person of the Spirit that we receive. St. Paul implies as much when, writing to the Galatians he points out “that you are children is proved by the fact that God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son who cries: Abba, Father.“ It is love that makes us children of God and that love is a free gift of God in the person of his Spirit. The whole tendency of love is union between the persons sharing love. The promise Jesus made in this same Discourse was that he and the Father would make their dwelling within those who show love for him by keeping his commandments. This indwelling takes place in the Holy Spirit. His presence makes it possible for mere human persons to be capable of the kind of personal unity with the infinitely pure and holy persons of the Blessed Trinity.  

So intimate is the bond between Jesus and the Spirit that St. Paul could boldly claim that “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (1Cor 12:3) Already in the Old Testament the prophet Isaiah, whose words Jesus said referred to him, had understood that the coming Re­deemer would be manifested by the gifts of the Spirit who rests upon him: 

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, 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 the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:1-3)

Accordingly, the conviction was strong in the Church and above all in those persons who were endowed with a fuller and more profound insight into the mysteries of salvation, that only through the action of the Spirit within can we contemplate the Lord Jesus in glory and through him come to a true knowledge of the Father. This was the teaching of our Lord himself as appears in the course of his Last Discourse. As we have just noted, it is set forth by St. Paul strikingly. Many of the Fathers and saints affirmed this same truth based on their experience as well as on the traditions they had received. Surely one of the most remarkable witnesses to this doctrine is that of St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759- 1833). Seraphim was a hermit widely consulted as a spiritual guide and wonder-worker. Visited on one occasion  by Motovilov, a layman whom he had cured of a seemingly incurable malady, Seraphim held an extraordinary conversation concerning the Holy  Spirit with this sincere Christian. Motovilov asked the hermit how he might be sure he was living in the grace of the Spirit. Seraphim replied: 

This, lover of God, is very simple. .. We are both now in the Divine Spirit. Why do you not look at me?  “I cannot look at you, Father, because lightenings stream from your eyes. Your face has become more brilliant than the sun and my eyes cannot bear it.” Fr. Seraphim said: ‘Do not be afraid, lover of God, for you are shining just as brightly as I am. You are now in the fullness of the divine Spirit because, otherwise, you could not see me in that state.’ (Sergius Bolshakoff, ’Russian Mystics’, 137)  

Seraphim acknowledges that such a vision is rarely given but the reality of the Spirit’s indwelling is offered to all who believe and love him. This is the basis of our Christian spirituality, the gift of the Spirit of God. For only by the Spirit can we recognize and accept the truth revealed by our Lord, as St. Paul told the “We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery... To us God has revealed it through his Spirit.” Likewise, the Spirit alone can bring it about that the lost likeness to God might be restored . This restoration of the likeness is the purpose of all Christian striving, and in a more focused and explicit way, it is the purpose of our monastic way of life, as St. Bernard declares repeatedly. Accordingly, we have a particular need to seek to enter the place the Spirit ‘s abode in our heart so that we might be more sensitive to his guidance and be strengthened by the conviction and strength his inspiration imparts.  

During this period of preparation for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, then, we can hardly do better than to open our inmost self in faith to the light of the Lord’s Spirit that is never lacking to those who truly seek him. May we concentrate our attention with loving desire on carrying out the practices of prayer, lectio and fraternal life which cleanse the eyes of our heart and enable us to see where the Lord leads us by the light of his Holy Spirit. “In your light, O Lord, may we see the light of life.”

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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