The Holy Spirit

The sixth session of The Way was held at the Metropolis in Rondebosch on Friday, 4 November. It’s topic was “The Holy Spirit” and the lecture was given by Father Michael Harper who began by noting that we cannot escape the Holy Spirit’s presence and divine influence in the Church. In Saint John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit will “bear witness to me” (15:26) and later He says that the Holy Spirit “will glorify me” (John 16:15). He also tells us that the Holy Spirit will convince the world about “sin and righteousness and judgement” (John 16:8) and that He will guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit’s role is to strengthen us in our conflict with evil and to support us in our difficulties.

We should not think that the Holy Spirit only came onto the scene on the day of Pentecost, for His work is already mentioned in the second verse of the Bible where we are told that He moved over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). He is said to have filled Bezalel, strengthened Samson, inspired David, and moved the prophets (Exodus 35:31-36:2; Judges 15:14; Matthew 22:43 & 2 Peter 1:21). We should also beware of viewing the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force and of calling Him “it”. He is a Person who speaks, wills and can be grieved (Acts 13:2; 1 Corinthians 12:11 & Ephesians 4:30).

To appreciate the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit, we should look at the prominence that the Holy Trinity is given in the life and ministry of the Church. Like the other Persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit has no beginning nor end and is distinct from and co-equal with the Father and the Son. This is a key reason why the Orthodox Church resisted introduction of the “Filioque” clause into the Creed by the western Church in the sixth century. In contrast to the West which started to claim that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son,” the Orthodox have always insisted that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, as Christ taught in John 15:26. Part of the reason for this opposition was that the Filioque destroys the proper balance between unity and diversity in the Godhead.

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We see the action of the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation of Christ, for both Saint Matthew (1:20) and Saint Luke (1:35) tell us that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, which the Creed also tells us. Likewise, at the Theophany or Baptism of Christ, we see the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ and thus manifesting the Holy Trinity. The Orthodox Church has also given great prominence to the Transfiguration of Christ:

as Jesus is transfigured, the disciples hear the voice of the Father, so similar to what happened at Christ’s baptism; and the cloud that overshadowed them is seen as signifying the presence of the Holy Spirit.

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Christ’s experience of Transfiguration is something that Orthodox Christians believe that we too can share. Saint Seraphim of Sarov taught that the true aim of the Christian life was the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and said:

When the Spirit of God comes down to a man and overshadows him with the fullness of His presence, then that man’s soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Holy Spirit fills with joy whatever He touches

The Orthodox tradition understands this experience that we witness in the lives of the saints as

the brightness which is nothing less than the uncreated energies of God – the light which spreads round them is identical with the divine light which shone around our Lord at his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.

On the day of Pentecost we witness the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Church. As we have seen, the Old Testament already witnesses to the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world.

But the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was the inauguration of a whole new dimension: it was the beginning of the New Creation. God’s actions before Pentecost were, to put it in the words of Christ, only for the ‘lost sheep of the House of Israel’. After Pentecost the audience became the whole world. The Gospel was to be proclaimed to the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and on all six continents not just in the Middle East.

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The Church had to be empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to carry out its mission.

Did Pentecost work? Assuredly, for by the end of the day queues were forming for baptisms – in total over 3000 people. Not a bad start for beginners! And it was to continue. St Luke, who according to the early church historian Eusebius, and St Jerome, was converted in Antioch, wrote the Acts of the Apostles which tells the story of how the Church spread from Jerusalem to Rome in one generation. There are those who think the book should have been called ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit’.

We commemorate this when we sing at Pentecost:

The fishermen He turned into theologians, 
He holds together in unity the whole structure of the Church; 
One in essence and one in throne with the Father and the Son, 
O Paraclete, glory to Thee.

It is the Holy Spirit who leads the Church into all truth, establishing what came to be known as the “apostolic doctrine.” He also gathers the Church together, uniting disparate believers into one Body.

The Orthodox Church has continued

the early practice of Christian baptism as the three-fold immersion of the candidate in water, followed immediately by Chrismation symbolizing the reception of the Holy Spirit and His Sealing; and followed then by the candidates receiving their first communion.

The Divine Liturgy is also full of references to the Holy Spirit.

For most of the year the service begins with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. ‘O heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, the treasury of good things and Giver of life: come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O good One.’ This service is always a divine happening. Metropolitan Kallistos describes it as a continual miracle; in the words of Nicolas Cabasilas, ‘This is the final mystery, beyond this it is not possible to go, nor can anything be added to it’. It is the sacrament of the Kingdom in time and beyond time.

Father Alexander Schmemann describes the whole of the Liturgy as a transformation. What happens in the service also happens in our lives:

We are being transformed by the Holy Spirit, a process called ‘theosis’, into the likeness of Christ, into real Christians. Paul in 2 Corinthians writes of the veil being removed, so that ‘we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit’ (3:18).

However, the work of the Holy Spirit is not only something that happens in us at the Church services. He is also present to us at home and at work.

Metropolitan Kallistos and others use the phrase ‘becoming what we are’. What then are we? We are children of God. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit. We are partakers of divine grace. We are saved. In the Homilies of St Macarius we are told, ‘Each of you has been anointed with heavenly Chrism, and has become a Christ by grace; each is a king and prophet of the holy mysteries’.

But the ‘becoming’ is much harder. Metropolitan Kallistos writes: ‘As pilgrims on the Way, then, it is our purpose to advance from the stage where the grace of the Spirit is present and active within us in a hidden way, to the point of conscious awareness when we know the Spirit’s power openly, directly, with the full perception of our heart … the Pentecostal spark of the Spirit, existing in each one of us from Baptism is to be kindled into a living flame. We are to become what we are’.

Saint Paul tells us about the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives:

In the Epistle to the Romans he wonderfully describes the Holy Spirit’s gift of love: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which has been given to us’ (Romans 5:5). He reminds us of the way the Holy Spirit leads us: ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God’ (Romans 8:14). He writes also about the ‘Spirit of sonship, and by him we cry “Abba, Father”’; Paul speaks of the Spirit Himself ‘bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8:15-16). He tells us that ‘the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness’ ( Romans 8:26).

In the Epistle to the Galatians St Paul gives us the classic list of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23).

In the Epistle to the Ephesians he urges them to ‘put on the whole armour of God’ and it includes ‘the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6:17); and he goes on to urge them to ‘pray at all times in the Spirit with all prayer and supplication’ (Ephesians 6:18).

We should remember, however, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit operate in community. Moreover,

The Orthodox Church does not make a sharp distinction between the gifts and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Father Lev Gillet writes about this: ‘The Greek Fathers used as almost synonymous the words “gifts” (doreai), “powers” (dynameis), “energies” (energeiai) and “charisms” (charismata). Greek Christian thought always seems reluctant to introduce rational analysis in the realm of pure grace.’

In conclusion:

We need to be grateful to God for the faithful witness in the Orthodox Church to the Holy Spirit from Pentecost onwards, but also to pray that we may all be filled with the Holy Spirit, so that He may make us strong witnesses of Christ, to change us into the likeness of Christ, and empower us to do the works of Christ.