Who is the Holy Spirit to me? Why Pentecost? There is countless of things to be said of the Holy Spirit… this is something in brief I’d like to share…of which I hope will be of benefit
The Feast of Pentecost is one of the major seven feasts in the Orthodox Church, and it is so for a reason.
Growing up in the Orthodox Church for many years now, in my experience, I haven’t heard much about the Holy Spirit – or there are not many prayers to the Holy Spirit – so I haven’t experienced much knowledge about the importance of who the Holy Spirit really is and Who He is to me and my salvation.
Looking back on Church history, in the first few centuries (with exception to the Book of Acts) there are less writings on the Holy Spirit than there are on Christ or God the Father for example. It is not until the 4th century controversy of the Pneumatomachians (lit: “Spirit-fighters”) that the Church Fathers delivered more writings on the 3rd Person of the Trinity (i.e St. Athanasius writes four epistles to the Egyptian Bishop Serapion on the Holy Spirit, Basil writes his famous treatise on the Holy Spirit against the Pneumatmochians, Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Ambrose and possible others of which I am not aware of). (You can find many of these texts here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/index.html)
So what can be said as to how the present day Church views the activity of the Holy Spirit in our day-to-day lives? Living in a 21st century Western world, are we afraid to constantly speak about the Spirit because we are trying to shy away from other evangelical-reformed churches who mainly speak about the Spirit? I’m not sure if there is a definite answer to this, but it is something to consider when we, as Orthodox Trinitarian Christians, speak about and understand who the Holy Spirit is as God and as an essential Person in the work of the Church. At least we can recognise Him as living and dwelling in us – and maybe we can speak more about Him, His work in us and His hand in the Church.
So then, who is the Holy Spirit? Why is this feast so important for the Church and for us?
We know and we believe the Spirit is eternal, co-creator with the Father and Son. The Spirit was there in creation – “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1), he was in the first formed man (“And the Lord God formed man… and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” – many fathers say this ‘breath’ of God was the Spirit of God given to Adam), he was in the prophets and kings (Exodus 31:3, 1 Samuel 10:10, Daniel 5:14, and many more), he led the prophets to see visions and spoke to them and guided them to places as He did to Paul, Peter, Philip and other apostles in the Book of Acts (Ezekiel 11:24; Acts 8:39, Acts 10:19, Acts 16:6, Acts 28:25 and more).
So, if the Spirit was there from the beginning of creation, why does the Church celebrate its reception thousands of years after man was created? Because the Spirit was removed from man – “And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not remain with man forever” (Genesis 6:3 *Note – NKJV translates as “shall not abide” but the Greek renders “remain”)
This feast is vital for our salvation for it consummates God’s promises that He will pour out “His Spirit on all flesh.” (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17) So why did God give us the Spirit and then take Him away from remaining in man? Will the Spirit again depart from humanity?
As we saw in Genesis 6:3 God said that His Spirit shall not remain with man forever – why? Because later Scripture tells us, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth” (Genesis 6:5-7)
God’s Spirit cannot remain or dwell in sin. Man’s nature was already corrupted after Adam disobeyed the commandment and the whole order of creation was disturbed. From then on, destruction and death was foreseeable because sin is destructive and deathly. So in sin, the Spirit is never present. From Adam to the last man. No man because of sin was then able to retain the Spirit God because the image of God’s likeness was destroyed, altered – only God can restore man in this image – and we know this in the coming of Christ. And it is the Spirit of the Lord through and in Christ that renews and restores man to this holy and divine image.
But since the Spirit has returned to humanity since the time of Pentecost, how does He remain and dwell in him now? Because of Christ. What the first man failed to do – that is, keep the Spirit of God in him – Christ fulfilled and consummated in His own flesh for the sake of humanity. And so we come to see how the story of salvation is continual from the beginning of creation to the Incarnation of Christ to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
I spoke briefly about the Spirit’s role in the Old Testament – now I want to focus on the Spirit’s role in the life of Christ and what that means for us.
We know that the Spirit came upon the womb of the Mother of God so she would bear the Saviour of the World. (Luke 1:35) Christ being God, already was born of the Spirit because He is one with the Spirit. Now then, when we speak about the baptism of Christ, the Spirit is seen descending from heaven and coming over Christ as a dove. (Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; Isaiah 61:1) The question arises: Why does Christ receive the Spirit when He already is one with the Spirit being God? It is for the sake of humanity.
St. Athanasius writes in his first book on Contra Arianos (Against the Arians):
If then for our sake He sanctifies Himself, and does this when He became man, it is very plain that the Spirit’s descent on Him in Jordan was a descent upon us, because of His bearing our body. And it did not take place for promotion to the Word, but again for our sanctification, that we might share His anointing, and of us it might be said, ‘Know you not that you are God’s Temple, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?’ For when the Lord, as man, was washed in Jordan, it was we who were washed in Him and by Him. And when He received the Spirit, we it was who by Him were made recipients of It
and again elsewhere:
when He is now said to be anointed in a human respect, we it is who in Him are anointed; since also when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized.
And a beautiful prayer also from the same book:
“Since You are God and King, therefore You were anointed, since none but You could unite man to the Holy Spirit, You, the Image of the Father, in whichwe were made in the beginning; for You are even the Spirit.”
Christ, being eternal God and perfect man, now received the Spirit so man can remain in Him forever. It is for this reason we are baptised into Christ and we receive the Spirit. Christ receives the Spirit for our sake and after His death, resurrection and ascension, He sends us the Spirit to fill “all flesh.”
The Spirit of God in man restores him to his original created state of the divine image and likeness. He is continually forming Christ in man, bringing him from glory to glory just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:18) He is constantly working in man to bring him to perfection and completion in the will of God.
So this feast is not just a yearly reminder of the ‘birth of the Church.’ It is an event for us to be reminded of the presence of the Spirit in our daily lives – in every moment, every thought, every action, every word (this is why in the holy chrism we are anointed on all our joints of our body and our eyes and forehead – so every part of the body may be lead and filled with the Holy Spirit).
Let us not neglect the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He is our comforter, our peace, our guide to salvation – He can only lead us to Christ and He makes us temples of God. Can we say we are truly God’s dwelling place by the Spirit? If not, let us make it a habit to constantly acknowledge the Spirit in us, call upon Him, speak to Him, listen and hear Him. We are called to be temples of God – we are mini-churches walking in this world, filled with the Spirit from our baptism, so let us not neglect such a great gift and grace and be Spirit-bearers rather than Spirit-fighters.
O Heavenly King, the Comfort, the Spirit of truth, Who is present in all places and fills all, the treasury of good things and the Life-Giver, graciously come, dwell in us and purify us from all defilement, O Good One, and save our souls. (4th Litany of the 3rd hour of the Coptic Book of Canonical Hours)