The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the gift of God, enabling us to receive all God’s gifts and enabling generations of believers to appreciate the mystery of Christ throughout history.
- The Acts of the Apostles present the promised Spirit coming to the disciples after the ascension as a baptism and power from on high to direct the church in its mission to the world (Acts 1:1-11; 2:1-47).
- For Paul, the Spirit is more often presented as a divine field of energy—pouring forth the love of God in our hearts (Rom 5:5)—and as the promise of the resurrection for all who believe (Rom 8:11). This same Spirit forms the followers of Christ in a free, fearless relationship with the Father (Rom 8:14-17). The Holy Spirit is always working within us, both aiding human weakness and expanding Christian hopes “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Paul prays, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13).
- The Gospel of John portrays the gift of the Spirit as the last breath of the Crucified (John 19:30)—and the first breath of risen One (John 20:22). In the ways of Love, the coming of the Spirit is the “advantage” that would follow the departure of Jesus from the earthly scene (John 16:7). Emanating from Jesus, the Spirit always connects the Christian sense of God back to the life and death of the Son (John 16:14; 1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 1:7). The Spirit of truth guides those who follow the way of Christ into an ever-fuller realization of the form of true life (John 14:26). The Christian life is aware of living from a new centre, the Love that God is. This kind of awakening is made possible “by the Spirit that [God] has given us” (1 John 3:24; cf. 4:13), for those who believe in Christ have “the testimony in their hearts” (1 John 5:10). As a result, those who have awakened to the love that God has for them abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4:13).
In these different ways, the Holy Spirit is the Love that sustains and expands Christian experience throughout history. The Creed confesses the Holy Spirit to be “the Lord, the giver of life.” This divine presence moves within and among us in the power and energy of that abundant life promised by Jesus (John 10:10).
As both divine Giver and divine Gift, the Spirit dwells in believers to open their lives to a new realm of relationships—to the Father, to Christ, and to one another. Where the Spirit is, there too are the Father and the Son; and where they are, there is an ever-open circle of love embracing all in a communion of life.
Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ comes to us through a power not of this world. A properly divine creativity is at work before which the human mind and heart must stand silent. When this Spirit acts, “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). This “power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).
The scope of the Spirit’s action, therefore, is not limited to any human measure or imagination. Breathed forth from the depths of God, the Spirit comes always as an excess, a surprise, and a gift. The prodigality of Love overbrims any finite anticipation or creaturely need on our part.
To adore the Spirit as the Third Person of the Trinity is to affirm the limitless originality of Love. Because the Spirit comes forth from the divine depths, the Spirit is like a great wave of life and love in which all becoming occurs. In the Spirit, the Word is eternally conceived, creation happens, the Word is made flesh, and the whole of creation moves toward its fulfillment.
The Holy Spirit is breathed forth as love for all that God is, for all that God can and will be, for all creation. The Spirit is Love unlimited, and God’s ecstatic self-giving outreach to all, both eternally and in time. The Spirit is Love welling up from the unity of the Father and Son to embrace all in a great community of life and love.
In every moment of creation, the Spirit, as the Lord and giver of life, has labored to bring forth life. This has culminated in the presence among us of Christ, “the resurrection and life” (John 11:25). The resurrection of Jesus reveals that God’s Spirit of life is stronger than any death-dealing power. It animates the whole of groaning creation that it might bring forth the whole Christ in the full dimensions of “the life of the world to come.” The One who brought about Love’s victory in the life and death of Jesus is also at work within us:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom 8:11). The whole groaning reality breathes with this Holy Breath, as all lives move toward the fullness of life:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the
children of God. . . . We know that the whole creation has been
groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation but
we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly
while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. . . .
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know
how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs
too deep for words. (Rom 8:19, 22-23, 26)
The Spirit is at the heart of God’s special, supremely personal mode of action. In the Bible’s multifaceted witness, the Spirit is the cause of creation and life (Gen 1:2; Isa 32:15; 44:3-5; Ps 104:30). The Breath of God gave the heroes of Israel their liberating strength (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6; 14:19; 1 Sam 10:6). The Spirit of wisdom enlightened the sages (Num 24:2; 2 Sam 23:2; Isa 9:5; 11:2) and inspired the prophets (Hos 9:7). The Spirit of God fills the world (Wis 1:7) and works in the successive generations of God’s people to prepare it for what is promised (Gal 4:29). In the fullness of time, the power of the Spirit brings history to its peak, enabling Mary, the virgin daughter of Zion, to bring forth the Holy One. Jesus is conceived in the womb of his mother by the power of the Spirit who moves him, in turn, at every moment of his life and mission (Acts 10:38). Filled with the Spirit, Jesus performs his works of healing and liberation (Luke 4:14:18) and contends with the spirits of evil (Luke 11:20). As he surrenders his life to God for the sake of the kingdom, he offers himself “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb 9:14). And through the Spirit, the Father raises the crucified One from the dead (Rom 8:11), and the church is born (John 3:5; 7:37ff). As the radiance of the Spirit streams from the face of Christ, it transforms believers from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18) to bring about a new Spirit-filled existence (1 Cor 15:44; Rom 8:11).
If Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, the Spirit is the medium in which God’s transforming action takes place. The traditional sequence—Father, Son, and Spirit—is followed by most theological expositions and by the Creed itself. This can have the unintended but still unfortunate result of reducing “the Third Divine Person” to very much an afterthought. But, in reality, the Spirit is the divine personal agent who first brings about the Son’s incarnation in the world. Christian discourse, in its unending effort to express how God is Love, has never been constrained by an overly rigid ordering of the Divine Persons in a mathematical fashion as first, second, and third. It is one thing to use our human categories to express the meaning of the Trinity in some limited fashion; it is another thing to overlook the fact that the divine life of the Trinity is one eternal, infinite Act. Consequently, there is no language of “before” or “after” that is really appropriate when speaking of the life of God, since such categories belong to the created world of time.
Even when we speak of the First, Second, and Third Divine Persons, that says more about our limited ways of understanding the eternal coming forth of the Word and Spirit within God. There is no question of imposing a temporal sequence on the eternal vitality of the Trinity. Nonetheless, some knowledge is possible by way of analogy with our human experience. We are all conscious of knowing and loving. For instance, the more we know, the more we love the other; and the more we love, the deeper our knowledge of this other. That experience is of some value when we start reflecting on the divine consciousness. It is helpful to think of the Spirit as God’s infinite power of loving. An ecstasy of love arises from the Father in the joy of knowing and uttering all that he is in the Word. The Spirit, given the limits of human imagination, both precedes and proceeds from the Son, for this Spirit is the divine power of Love in which the Father communicates himself in the Son. At the same eternal moment of this Love, the Son surrenders all to the Father.
Hence, new ways of speaking can usefully be explored in order to counter the image of temporal sequence in which the Spirit always comes last. In fact, there is a less rigid pattern open to the play of the full range of biblical experience. For example, we read in Scripture that the Spirit brings forth, guides, anoints, and witnesses to Christ, the Word Incarnate. Then, too, we confess in the Creed itself that Jesus Christ “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, /and became man.” In both cases, the implication is that the Father generates and directs the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christians adore the divine community of Father, Son and Spirit. God is not solitary, but is rather an unimaginable and unbounded love-life of interpersonal giving and receiving. Worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son, the Spirit is acknowledged as the living “space,” as it were, of divine communion—the One in whom the Father and Son surrender to each other in mutual love and delight. For us as human persons to receive the Spirit, is to experience pulse toward self-effacing service of the other. We register the presence of the Spirit in our midst in words of unity, love, peace, and generosity. Our thoughts and prayers often celebrate how we belong “in the unity of the Holy Spirit.”
Nonetheless, we must always remember that the unity of the Spirit suppresses personal distinctions—neither in God nor in the community of the church itself. It is, therefore, necessary to think of the presence of the Spirit as creating, preserving, and promoting among persons the reality of unity-indistinction. Being a person is not to be cut off from others so as to be ever defending oneself against them. Rather, fully personal existence is to be “from and for the other” in loving interaction.
In other words, to be a person, whether divine or human, is to be in relation. Indeed, a long tradition of theological language speaks the reality of the three Divine Persons as pure relationships. In that understanding, the Father is pure “Sonwardness” in the Spirit, the Son is pure “Fatherwardness” in the same Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is pure “Father-and-Sonwardness.”
Admittedly, these are clumsy expressions, but they do point to the character of each of the Divine Persons as being from, for, and with the Others. When the Creed, then, expresses adoration of the Spirit within the life of the Trinity, it is correcting any tendency to think of the Father and Son as locked in a self-enclosed kind of unity. There is always room for the Other, and it is in this Other that Love is fully expressed and unity achieved. It can be said that the Spirit is the divine space of allowing for and welcoming the other, opening all relationships to freedom, creativity, and self-surrendering love. As said above, the presence of the Spirit always allows for genuine otherness, both within God and in the world of creation. While the worship of God the Trinity recognizes the infinite difference between the creator and the creature, such a perception arises out of a certain God-given “inside knowledge” of the divine life. The divine Three have drawn us, through the gifts of faith, hope, and love, into their own vitality. We adore the three Divine Persons and sing “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” There is, however, a more intimate formula: “Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.” The believer does not behold God from the outside, as it were, but lives the divine life from within. To believe is to participate in the circulation of life and love that is the Trinity.
Our “glorification” of the Holy Spirit shares in the way the Father and the Son glorify the Spirit of their unity. As the Father glorifies the Son in the resurrection, the Son glorifies the Father by offering to him the whole of creation. But both Father and Son now glorify the Spirit: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf” (John 15:26). Jesus goes on to say, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (John 16:7). Faith must make room for the originality of the coming of the Spirit: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). It is the Father’s will to be worshipped in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Both the Father and the Son are now present in the world in no way other than through this Holy Spirit. As they glorify their Spirit, the Spirit glorifies them. In this Spirit, the Father is worshipped and the Son is glorified: “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14).
As the Spirit dwells in believers, a life of self-surrendering love is present in the world. Indeed, in the genesis of our faith in Christ and of our knowledge of the Father, the Holy Spirit is the first in the order of experience. Only through the Spirit do we have any real contact with Christ and enter into an intimate relationship with the Father. There is more: through the Spirit, God brings the whole Christ into existence.
From the act of creation to the formation of Israel and the faith of Mary, the Spirit is acting. From the incarnation of the Word to the resurrection of the Crucified, the power of the Spirit is at work. From the outpouring of Pentecost to the transformation of all creation and the life of the world to come, “the Lord, the giver of life” is unceasingly in action. All such mysteries are phases in the revelation of the Holy Spirit of God’s love at work in creation. If the divine community is boundless self-giving Love, we most glorify God in receiving, living, and communicating the Love that GOD IS.
Fr Tony, this is one of the best pieces I have read about the Holy Spirit. You are such a wonderful writer. I can read your passion and enthusiasm. You have shared with us such great insight. Thank you.