Thursday, June 23, 2016

Acquiring the Gift of the Holy Spirit


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of  the most holy and life-giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism." (St. Kallistos and St. Ignatios Xanthopoulos)


Icon of St Seraphim of Sarov's Conversation with N. Motovilov, during which he is transfigured by the uncreated light of the Holy Spirit.

Although the Feast of Pentecost reveals the trinitarian nature of God, it is on this "last and great day of Pentecost" that we concentrate on the Holy Spirit. This is clear from the prescribed readings for the Sunday of Pentecost: ACTS 2:1-11 describing the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; and JN. 7:37-52. 8:12, the Gospel passage which speaks of the giving of the Holy Spirit by the glorified Christ. 

As Orthodox Christians we do not reduce the Holy Spirit to a kind of indefinite divine power or energy.  Rather, we clearly proclaim that the Holy Spirit is God, the "Third Person" of the "holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity." 

We further believe that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father" (JN. 15:26) and "Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified" (Nicene Creed).  As one of the many beautiful hymns of the Vespers of Pentecost expresses this truth:

The Holy Spirit was, is, and ever shall be
Without beginning, without end,
Forever united and numbered with the Father  and the Son ...

The Holy Spirit, present within the dispensation of the Old Testament and more openly within the earthly ministry of Christ, descends into the world in a unique, but decisive and final way on the Great Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Savior's resurrection. 

The coming of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the New Testament Church and the Holy Spirit abides in the Church as the life-giving Power of renewal, rebirth and regeneration.  The Church would grow old and die (as do empires, nations, cultures and secular institutions) because of our many human and historical sins, if not for this presence of the Holy Spirit, making the Church ever-young and cleansing us all "from every impurity" as the personal Source of sanctification. 

We come to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Or, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it a bit more fully: 

"One does not think of the Father without the Son and one does not conceive of the Son without the Holy Spirit. For it is impossible to attain to the Father except by being raised by the Son, and it is impossible to call Jesus Lord save in the Holy Spirit."

All authentic life in the Church is life lived in the Holy Trinity, and on the Day of Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit is the final revelation of precisely this greatest of mysteries - that the one God is "tri-hypostastic" (meaning "tri-personal"), being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Here is a typical example from the Church Fathers of expressing the great paradox of the One God in Three Persons:

"The single divinity of the Trinity is undivided and the three Persons of the one divinity are unconfused.  We confess Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, divided yet without division and united yet with distinctions."  (St. Thalassios the Libyan)

The Sunday of Pentecost is, then, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Pentecost Monday being the day of the Holy Spirit.  Of the divine attributes of the Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great enumerates the following: 

"From this Source comes foreknowledge of the future, the understanding of mysteries, the apprehension of things hidden, the partaking of spiritual gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the choir of angels, unending joy, the power to abide in God, to become like God, and, highest of all ends to which we can aspire, to become divine."

This can strike us as abstract.  But theology reveals to us the foundation and the vision on which and in which we order our spiritual lives.  The dogma of the Trinity must impact our lives.

The beginning of this process of discerning the presence of God in our lives and in trying to live out that presence is to be found in the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation.  Each and every human person, baptized and chrismated into the life of the Orthodox Church so as to receive the gift of salvation from sin and death unto life eternal, has participated in his/her own personal Pascha and Pentecost. To be baptized is to die and rise in Christ; to be chrismated is to receive "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." Alive in Christ, sealed and filled with the Holy Spirit!  New life and the power with which and in which we are enabled to continue in that life!

Without Christ we "can do nothing" (JN. 15:5), and without the Holy Spirit - poured out upon us by the risen, ascended and glorified Christ at Pentecost - we cannot say that "Jesus is Lord." (I COR. 12:3) 

As St. Seraphim of Sarov put it:

"The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Spirit of God."

Yet, I cannot but wonder if - or to what extent - we are troubled if we squander the "great grace of Baptism" that we received when we were buried with Christ in the baptismal font - both a tomb (dying to sin) and a womb (rebirth).  It seems as if we can be insensitive to the withdrawal of the Spirit's presence from our minds and hearts through sheer inattention and lack of vigilance.

The saints would weep for their sins - in fact, this is called "gifts of tears" as the means of restoring that very baptismal grace forfeited by sin - while we shrug off our own sins as "normal" and practically inevitable considering the conditions and circumstances of life.  If we are more-or-less "like other people" in conformity with a basic set of moral principles, and thus maintaining a good image in the eyes of others, then we are usually perfectly content with our own sinfulness.  In this way, we domesticate and normalize sin by rendering it innocuous and easy to live with. 

So understood, sin is no longer that tragic "missing of the mark" that renders sin so baneful a reality, a reality from which we needed to be saved by the death of our Savior. Thus, we re-define sin so that our notion of sin hardly resembles what we find in the Scriptures!

But how we may weep and gnash our teeth if and when we lose money, property, status, or simply "things;" how we mourn the loss of even a "trinket" if we have invested it with sentimental value.  It is these types of losses that are meaningful and which demand our attention and concern, while the muting of the "voice" of the Spirit deep within our conscience will only draw a lukewarm sigh. 

This is a most unfortunate reversal of values; for losing the "seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit" is tantamount to losing our "heavenly treasure;" while losing our earthly treasures is only to lose what "moth and rust consume" despite our heroic efforts to escape that process. 

This is a paradox:  When, by the grace of God, our spiritual lives have matured in such a way that we truly mourn (and even weep!) over our sins which strip us of the presence of the "Comforter and Spirit of Truth," then through genuine repentance, the Holy Spirit will "come and abide in us" to "warm our hearts with perfect love," according to the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

The Lord gave us the Holy Spirit, and the person in whom the Holy Spirit lives feels that he has paradise within.  (St. Silouan of Mt. Athos)

No comments:

Post a Comment

You are welcome to post a comment. Comments are monitored to make sure they are appropriate for our readership. Please observe common courtesy to all. Offensive remarks will be removed.