“Experiencing Life in the Holy Spirit”
As the Orthodox Church as a whole begins to emphasise a fuller life in the Holy Spirit, marked by the Feast of the Pentecost (on the 31st May in 2020), it is necessary to review once more its significance. There is little doubt that the Orthodox Church is the most “charismatic” of Christian Churches when one considers the depth-dimensions of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, in the world and in all of creation. The iterative doxology pertaining to the Holy Spirit at the conclusion of prayers in the Liturgy of St. James
“that we may offer glory and thanks …to Thy Holy Spirit all-Holy and good, and adorable and life-giving…” points to the essential fact that creation in its entirety cannot exist without His life-giving presence; it would result in its oblivion if the Holy Spirit was to be separated from its life. Consequently, God the Holy Spirit, Who is of One Substance with God the Father and God the Son, works incessantly to provide creative and transforming life for all of creation (Gen 1:2; 6:3; Pss.33:6; 104:29ff; Job 12:10; Ezek 37: 7-10; cf. St. Jn 5: 17ff).
It was at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381) that the third section of our Nicene Creed was formulated and added. This was in reaction to the teaching of Macedonians who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Thus, what we generally term as “the Nicene Creed” is in reality “the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed” as it was only at the First Council of Constantinople that the section on the Holy Spirit was appended to the Creed. Later, the Catholic Church added a note to this formulation (Council of Braga in A.D. 675), stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son” (in Latin Filioque), which addition has been accepted by most of the Anglican and Protestant Churches. But for the Orthodox Churches, this addition became another factor for its split from the West. Not only was such an addition adopted independent of a conciliar formulation, but it was counter to the biblical and theological understanding. Specifically, in St.Jn 15:26 Jesus states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Theologically, the addition of the Filioque clause goes against the principle that the Father is the divine source of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, the Father remains the source of both the Son and the Holy Spirit, while the character of the Son is to be the Only-begotten and the Spirit to proceed from the Father. Ecumenical discussions have provided an acceptable formulation, though this has not been added to the Creed: the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father through the Son…
The gift of the Holy Spirit (note St. Jn 14: 16: “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate…) is the promised presence to be with the Christian community after Jesus’ ascension. While the Old Testament does attest to the presence and role of the Holy Spirit (Ex 33:14-17; Ps 51:12ff; Is 59:21), it was only a partial endowment given to particular individuals , such as Joseph (Gen 41:38) Moses (Num 11:17; Exod 31:1-5), Gideon (Jg 6:34; 14:16). It was among the prophets that the work of the Holy Spirit was widely perceived (I Sam 10:6; Mic 2:7; Hos 9:7; Ezek 2:2; Wis 1:4; 9:17). But there was the expectation that the Spirit would be universally gifted with the advent of the Messiah (Ezek 11:19; 37:14; Jer 31:33; Is 32:15; Joel 2:28; Zech 12:10), in accordance with God’s promise fidelity to the Covenant (Is 59:21). In fulfilment of these expectations, the Holy Spirit is seen active in the birth of both Jesus and His forerunner St. John the Baptist (St. Mt 1:18, 20; St.Lk 1: 15,17; 35). This eschatological (or end times) process is furthered at the baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove upon him, foreshadowing this gift to all believers who would be baptised. But the signal event of the fulfilment of the prophecies of the generalised outpouring of the Holy Spirit is seen in Acts 2: 1-11, where the descend of the Holy Spirit is interpreted specifically as a realisation of Joel 2:28 by St. Peter (Acts 2:16-21). Henceforth, the Spirit would be an abiding presence in the life of a Christian, evidenced by the narratives of the baptism of the new believers into the Church (2:38; 4: 31; 8:17; 10:44).
For the believer, then, this gift of the Holy Spirit is given mainly in the Sacrament of Baptism, confirmed and strengthened through the reception of the Holy Eucharist and other sacraments. In the Service of Baptism and Chrismation (the two are inseparably connected as is the Eucharist) the celebrant prays that God will pour out His Spirit on the waters and on the baptizand. This gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the baptizand, especially at Chrismation, is what enables the person to live a life dedicated to God and leads to his/her ultimate transformation into the likeness of Christ Jesus in whose image s/he had been created. While restrictions of space do not permit us to investigate all the benefits and implications of this endowment of the Holy Spirit, I shall focus primarily on how the Holy Spirit allows each believer to grow as a son/daughter of God.
In the Orthodox Tradition, the person baptised is also incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ through the reception of the Holy Eucharist. As such, a person is now adopted as a child of God, a brother and sister to Christ Jesus (Heb 2:11-12, 17). It is on the basis of this relationship that every believer has been given the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of future salvation (II Cor 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph 1;13-14). Realigning all relationships thus in the Kingdom of God, Jesus instructed His followers to henceforth address God as “Abba” the endearing term in Aramaic that little children addressed their fathers (St. Mt 6:9; St. Lk 11:2). St. Paul clarifies that it is the ineffable love of God displayed in this favoured filial relationship that provides us the courage to freely approach the heavenly Father: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”(Rom 8:15-16; cf. also Gal 4:6). Yes, we are indeed sinners, but yet as children of the Father we possess the boldness to always approach Him, in the strong conviction that He is always ready to receive us and restore us to our glorious position (St.Lk 15:22-24).
The best instantiation and paradigm of filial love and relationship, of course, has been provided by Jesus, demonstrating to His disciples how one could nurture this fellowship with the heavenly Father. At the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descends on Him in the form of a dove and accompanied by the divine declaration, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (St. Mk 1: 10-11; St. Mt 3:13-17; St. Lk 3:21-22). The reason for the Father being pleased with His Only-begotten Son does not commence with the baptism, but must be traced to eternity where the Son, in perfect obedience to His Father, sets aside His divinity and humbles Himself to assume human form, even to the ignoble death on the Cross (Phil 2:6-8). His incarnational life was one of continuing obedience to the Father, teaching and performing what His Father had imparted to Him. As Jesus Himself states,” Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing, for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (St.Jn 5: 19; 12:49; cf.also 6:38). The Son lives out His life in complete faith that the Father would glorify the Son, even if it meant that He would have to imbibe of the chalice of suffering and death (St.Jn 12:27; St. Mt 26: 39; St.Lk 22:42). It is because of this total obedience that the Father has given the glorified Christ His own name “Lord” and raised Him to the summit of glory so that ultimately every knee should bow down to Him (Phil 9-10).
Is it because we have not plumbed the depths of this filial relationship that we favour other manifestations of the Holy Spirit? Baptism is an identification with this death and resurrection of Jesus, so that we can live a life of understanding the will of the Father and living according to it in the power of the Holy Spirit. And this means that we deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow after Jesus. Our lives, then, must become imitations of Jesus, serving our brothers and sisters. It is exemplifying this love of Jesus for others that we can best witness to Christ (St. Jn 15: 9-10) and produce much fruit, to the glory of the Heavenly Father (St. Jn 15:8). The ability to love is the greatest gift that the Holy Spirit can gift us, as eloquently stated by St. Paul (I Cor 13:13). Jesus Himself tells us in an unforgettable statement: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (St. Jn 15: 12-13). We often overlook this aspect of our filial relationship and responsibility, substituting instead an expectation of a visibly-manifest outpouring of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing and the like. Somewhere in this misdirected spirituality is the covert impression that it is in such expressions that the Spirit is active and not present in living in the spirit of love and service to others. Isn’t this to counter the very words of Jesus (see especially St. Mt 7:21-23) and against the directions of St. Paul regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Are we not being disobedient to the Father in not understanding His will for our lives and being stiff-necked in pursuing our own intends? Therefore, the best instance of being empowered by the Holy Spirit is to follow the example of Jesus Christ in total commitment to the will of the Father and imitating how Jesus.
Through Chrismation we are raised to three offices: 1) Prophet or Prophetess, 2) King or Queen, and 3) Priest. Through the office of a prophet or prophetess, we are enjoined to intently listen to the Word of God, assimilate it and allow it become the bedrock of our lives. Through the position of being King or Queen, we seek to discern the righteousness of the Kingdom of God and implement it in our society. And through the position of a priest, we are to sanctify all of creation and offer it as a pleasing gift to the Holy Trinity. And, of course, all this transpires only through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
So, how can we experience a more powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Certainly, it is not in pursuing a powerful manifestation of the Spirit; the Orthodox Church has consistently interpreted such a spirituality as detrimental to growing in the likeness of Jesus Christ. For such manifestations are usually accompanied by a spiritual pride that impedes us from walking in humility and pursuing our goal of ultimate transformation into Jesus’ image. Rather, it is walking humbly before God, to serve others and in being reflections of Jesus as the Only true and authentic Son of God. Herein lies a true life in the Holy Spirit.
Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios
Thought for the Month
The Silver Lining in the Cloud
“Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to a Skylark
As we anxiously labour under the cloud of COVID-19, we wonder when this virus will be eradicated, and what precisely is God’s intend in all this. And with the infection showing no signs of abatement, the situation becomes a fertile ground for all kinds of doomsday predictions. Amidst all this, when we raise our eyes to God for answers, we are reminded that there are no accidents with God; in fact, for those who trust and have faith in Him, all things work for good. As St. Paul writes,” We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). Therefore, we have faith that God’s purpose which we cannot understand is working even in the midst of this viral infection to bring about a transformed heaven and a transformed earth. So, we ask ourselves the question: can any good come out of all this? For those with an abiding trust in God’s love, the response will surely be a categorical “Yes”! And so, while the cloud still hovers over us, we look for the proverbial silver lining that points to God continuing to work in these troubled times. Let us look at some of them.
- A Closer Walk with God: At no other point in the liturgical calendar of the Church is there the awareness of God’s proximity than during the Lent. The fast, the selected readings from the Holy Scriptures, the special services and meditations, all create in us an experience that we are walking closer with God. In fact, for some members the Lent is like a spiritual dry cell, for they appear to store up a divine energy, for we never see them in the Church for the rest of the year! The viral infection has only intensified this experience, for we are at one stroke impressed with our mortality and sense that God alone can remove this sickness, a theme that is reiterated in the hymns and prayers of this period. Burdened as we are with a deep sense of helplessness, we have now turned to God with the conviction that He alone can save us from this situation. It is true that we have been deprived of our freedom to worship God in our churches. But that too deeply impresses upon us what we took for granted, that the joy of our Christian fellowship that follows our corporate worship on Sundays is also a gift from God. All this has only made profound our prayers as we raise up our feeble hands to God for salvation, not only from this virus, but also from the disease of sin. Yes, our prayers become more poignant because we now pray with a conviction that God alone can save us from our dreadful situation. Now in the confines of our homes and out of sight of others, we now raise our spiritual worship (Rom 12:1) to God, in a way finding truth in the promise of Christ that when we pray in secret, our heavenly Father will see us in secret and reward our prayers (St Mt 6:6). In a way, the loss of public worship in our churches has been ameliorated by a deep personal proximity to God, an experience we would not have attained without the presence of this virus. Truly, our sense that our entire being is being permeated by the love and presence of God is a blessed outcome of our predicament.
- Retrieving the Tradition of Family Prayers: But that is not all! What about a tradition that all but disappeared from our homes, what with its fast-changing social mores. For once the veracity of the old adage, that a family that prays together, stays together is driven home with a strong conviction. The deprivation of church services now serves to bring the family together around the feet of God and there as a family we begin to renew a closeness that was rarely seen before. The family is truly the undergirding unit of the parish, the place where God is first experienced, where prayer life is taught and a new generation finds its roots in God and the Church. Devoid of this foundational spiritual bedrock, our young men and women become easy prey to new-found spiritual groups who teach instant spirituality. Now that tradition that had been consigned to oblivion has once more become a feature our family life as they gather together to pray, or even just to view the services on the YouTube. Somewhere in that process I am sure the family will find the chance to pray together. Perhaps, this enforced quarantine will have the salutary consequence of retrieving the tradition of family prayers so that it will become a perduring feature of our families.
An observation that will be made is that most of these services are in Malayalam and so remain unintelligible to many of our young men and women. Allow me to share my experience. I too grew up with little knowledge of my mother tongue. But that was not an impediment for my participation in the family prayers in my grandparents’ home. Even though I couldn’t understand them, the deep sense of being in prayer was always present. And I learned most of these prayers by heart as a result of these daily prayers. Today, they have become meaningful, as they are a rich source of my own prayer life. That, too, I pray will result from this coerced family prayer meetings. And it is when families experience difficulties that they draw closer together, a bond that will preserve their unity and cohesiveness well into the future.
- Regaining the Joy of Family Communications: Surely, there will come a time during this period when we tire of staring at the TV or being engaged with our handsets. And so, we will be forced to engage in talk with family members. Family members talking to each other is another casualty of our communication technological explosion. The paradox is that even as we spend more time in talking to friends and being engaged on social media sites, we rarely talk to family members, even at home. Now out of necessity we indulge in talking to one another. As the days pass, our conversation progresses from small talk to sharing our life stories, so that the bonds that keep a family together are strengthened. Fathers are able to spend quality time with their children and it is my hope that husbands and wives will also talk to each other. In fact, I hope that family members will put aside their handsets so that they can all come together to spend time in talking and sharing their life experiences.
One certain outcome of this lockdown is that families are compelled to have meals together. This used to be a welcome part of growing up in a family. But with the fractured life we lead, families are not always able to come together for meals. Now for a change all come together to share meals as a family. And the experience of sharing a meal as a family now become once more a happy occasion for all to talk and laugh over a good and delicious meal. Our nostalgic recollections should include such reminiscences of the family in later times, so that they can bring a wistful smile of delight to our faces.
- Managing with What We Have: The virtual curfew imposed all over the country has disrupted supply channels so that we have had to curtail our consumption to what is necessary or essential. Because we cannot avail of all what we wish for we are learning to manage with what is essential. What is prepared at home is carefully done so that we have cut down the waste. I recall my childhood days when every part of a pumpkin was served as some dish or other, without diminishing its taste. And there was little to waste, considering the food chain that was a regular feature of our homes in Kerala. Here in the NCR a whole new generation has grown up experiencing a life-style that minimises sacrifice and sharing. Most families enjoy a comfortable financial situation here in the NCR (this can be contested, but I offer this as a relative statement) which allows for a wider range of spending by the upcoming generation. In our changed circumstances there are the demands now for a changed pattern of living which places limits on what is spent, the food eaten and so forth. If nothing else, this upcoming generation will learn that controlling consumption is a virtue that needs to be cultivated. It is also a valuable experience for parents to impose some control, all aimed at enabling the family to become a happy, enriching and valuable learning experience for all.
- Sharing What We Have: The fasts of the Lenten season are not meant to be a goal in Itself, but an exercise in sharing what we have. Thus, the money saved by abstaining from food is to be collected and donated for the relief of those who are financially disadvantaged. Thereby, we learn the art of sacrificing and sharing what we have with others. This is an important lesson of the Lenten season. The onus is on the believer to find out those in need and to share a part of what God has given us with others. We live in a context where our unlimited consumption creates no compunctions in us. At least for a time, the sense that we have extravagantly utilised our assets should compel us to evaluate our life-style and see where we can sacrifice and share our assets with others. We should recall the observation of St. Paul, “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus , for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to giver than to receive’ (Acts 20.35).”
If at the end of all this lockdown we could all so benefit from our difficulties, would that not be a welcome experience? Then, we could surely share the sentiments of Shelley which appears at the beginning of this article. Let us pray that this period will be a time of healing and learning to see the silver lining in the cloud of COVID-19.
Met. Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios