Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Holy Baptism, Part 06: Receiving the Holy Spirit

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord together in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:1-4)

The twin Mysteries of Holy Baptism and Holy Chrismation are like book ends. They are reciprocals of one another, which is why they are administered together. Whereas Holy Baptism plants us into Christ, Holy Chrismation plants the Holy Spirit of God into us, so there is now a mutual indwelling, after the model of the Holy Trinity: “I in You,” as Jesus said in His prayer to the Father, “and You in Me.” Whereas now the devil, who formerly had been operating from within us, is cast out, so now the Holy Spirit, Who formerly had been operating outside of us, comes to live deep within. (It’s no use, Jesus taught, to cast out a demon and leave an empty place; he will return with seven more demons to re-occupy it. Matthew 12:44-45) As Baptism is the believer’s “personal Easter”, so Chrismation is the believer’s “personal Pentecost”. Whereas Holy Baptism is a unifying Mystery, Holy Chrismation is a diversifying one. The “tongues as of fire” were divided, “and one sat upon each of them”. Together, the two Mysteries render us all one, yet each distinct. We are formed after the model of the Holy Trinity: one, yet many. Unity and multiplicity are at the same time combined and transcended.

What does it mean to receive the Holy Spirit? Just as “renouncing satan” is widely misunderstood, so is “receiving the Holy Spirit.” It doesn’t mean you suddenly blurt out a lot of nonsense syllables (though at Pentecost, they did begin to speak in other, very real, languages) or that you keel over, pass out, or grovel on the floor barking; all of these are the bizarre products of mass psychology, even of mass hypnotism, a form of emotional manipulation. Nor does being filled with the Holy Spirit involve an emotional orgy. Rather, it is a sober business.

It means, for one thing, that now your own, Spirit-filled heart can recognize Truth when you encounter it, just as John the Baptist, still in his mother’s womb, leapt, recognizing the Lord in a manner pre-verbal yet deeper than words. (This infant recognition, too, has implications for infant baptism. Infants know. They do not know that they know, but they are aware. That is, their spirits know before their minds do.) When the Holy Spirit resides within you, the Truth feels to you like your own self-expression, your own self-realization, and that is why your heart leaps leaps for joy, just as the babe in Elisabeth’s womb leapt in joyful recognition of Truth Himself. “My sheep,” said Jesus, “know My voice.” For the same reason, our hearts also shrink instinctively (as it were) from falsehood. Before our minds can put words to what is wrong, the Spirit of Truth within us catches error’s odor. In such ways are fulfilled what Jesus says: “…when the Comforter is come, Whom I will send to you from the Father, [that is] the Spirit of truth, which proceeds from the Father, He shall testify of Me.” (John 15:26) And again: “But when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth...” (John 16:13) The Spirit testifies of Christ and leads us into truth and these are two ways of describing the same thing, since Christ is the Truth and the Truth is Christ.

How does the Bible fit in with all this guidance from the Holy Spirit (other than bearing witness to it)? The first thing we need to say is, the Bible is essential for the Christian life. You can barely understand the Christian faith, and never make much progress in it, without the Holy Scriptures. What happens when the Holy Spirit comes to live inside you is that, as you are feasting your soul and mind on God’s Word, such portions of it as are most needful to you at the moment provoke the response we have been describing as a joyful leap of the heart. You recognize the Scriptures’ Truth for yourself rather than simply and only because you are told “This is true.” Another way of saying the same thing is, the Holy Spirit reveals the truths of Scripture to you first-hand, directly, in Person. You encounter countless marvelous truths in the Bible, but their being in the Bible is no longer the main reason you believe them. It’s as Job said, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.” (Job 42:5) Now you have it not only from the text, but more than that, straight from the Source. To reverse an old Jewish saying and Job’s metaphor, From God’s lips to your ears. From God's lips to your heart, rather.

An extremely important guideline to remember always and everywhere is that the Holy Spirit will never “reveal” to us anything that conflicts with the Spirit-inspired, Holy Scriptures. He is not a spirit of confusion or contradiction. And a corollary to this is that the Holy Spirit, interpreting those divine writings for us, will never “reveal” to us anything that contradicts what He has revealed to our fathers and mothers in Christ. Today there is a widespread assumption in some denominations that somehow we today are more sophisticated, less culture-bound, more knowledgeable, more scholarly and therefore wiser than our forbears. We understand the Gospel better than they. It’s a seductive thought; it’s flattering; but it isn’t true. The Holy Spirit, Who guided them, was the same then as He is now. Just because we can talk more than the ancients about the structure of a Gospel or the genre of an Epistle doesn’t mean we know better what it is supposed to mean in the life of the Church, how to live it in our lives. The way the Holy Spirit interpreted it among our ancestors in the faith will not differ from the way He interprets it for us today. That is why we pay so much attention to the consensus of the Church, not necessarily at any particular given time, but over the whole course of her history. “No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20)

A third implication of having the Holy Spirit within us instead of outside us – and here is where things get trickier – is that He tells us things not in the Holy Scriptures: “Go here” (Acts 9:11), “Don’t go there” (Acts 16:6-7), “Say this” (Luke 12:12) and “This is what is going to happen” (John 16:13). The greeting of Elisabeth (Luke 1:24-45) and Mary’s hymn in response (Luke 1:46-77), Zechariah’s prophesying (Luke 1:67-79) , Simeon’s revelation that he would not die before he had seen Messiah (Luke 2:25-26) are all examples of new revelations not contained in Holy Scripture – although certainly in line with it.

We know that to follow these inner promptings is an undertaking full of pitfalls simply from observing how many people are led in how many different and conflicting directions by attempting it. It is quite common to hear religious people say things like, “And God told me to take that particular parking spot,” or “Then I knew God was showing me He wanted me to have that scarf” and other such unlikely things, usually having little or nothing to do with anything spiritual.

The key to avoiding delusion here is humility, and in this context humility, for the Orthodox Christian, involves two specific elements. The first is, because the very thought that God should speak to us is so seductive, we should maintain enough hard, cold realism never to consider ourselves worthy enough for God to say anything to us at all. And the second element of humility is to recognize that we need the affirmation or correction of others. That is why we have spiritual fathers or mothers, wise and experienced and Christ-like people who are further along the Path than we are, who can give us the benefit of their insight. We are never to accept anything “revealed” to us as from God without the agreement of our spiritual elders. This is also why we keep in close communication with one another, because every single one of us has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. If we are not humble enough to submit ourselves to the counsel of others, it’s a sure sign we’re deluded and the more we are convinced we are right, the greater the probability of our being dead wrong.

Even trickier to deal with - and people who cannot tolerate ambiguity hate this - is the fact that the Holy Spirit can and does also sometimes guide the Church in matters of faith and practice without direct resort to the Holy Scriptures. The Scriptures bear witness to this fact and once again, the Scriptures must not be contradicted. At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), it was the Holy Spirit directly (verses 28-29) Who prompted the Church’s decision that Gentile Christians need not observe the entire Jewish Law. This decision can certainly claim to be a correct interpretation of Scripture, can certainly claim to be derived from Scriptural principles. But the issue had never arisen in the Old Testament, so there was nothing specific written to address it. It was prompted by the Holy Spirit.

Today, again new issues arise concerning which the Holy Scriptures have no direct instructions. For example, Orthodox Christians in immigrant countries, especially America and Australia, are trying to discern how they ought to unify the various strands of Orthodoxy that arrived in the country, each with its own parishes, clergy, and bishops. What to do in the United States, to make one jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, the Serbian Orthodox, the Antiochian Orthodox, etc., etc.? It is becoming a scandal to have several bishops for one single territory.

This type of corporate discernment, because it involves the setting aside of so many human passions and rising above so many human weaknesses, tends to take a long, long time. It may even take centuries for consensus to be achieved, as it did when the Church was trying to decide what the proper role of icons ought to be.

To set aside the promptings of our own minds and bodies and to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit instead is indeed the very essence of the Christian life, the very meaning of a “spiritual” life. The goal is not to fulfill the Law, but to be in sync with the Holy Spirit (Who obviously will never prompt us to do any evil). As St. Paul writes (Galatians 5:16-25):

I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Now the works of the flesh are clear, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

Another very important thing it means for the Holy Spirit to reside within us has to do with assurance. If the Holy Spirit so to speak germinates in us and sprouts and begins to grow, well, that's the same as saying immortal, eternal Life is taking root in us. If we find ourselves in a shared life with God now, how much more hereafter. The Spirit within us is both pledge and foretaste, as Strong's Concordance says, of blessedness to come. That is why St. Paul calls the Holy Spirit in our hearts the “earnest” of our salvation; "earnest" as in pledge, guarantee, deposit or down payment. When I was a girl, you put down “earnest money” when you bought a new house, and took out a mortgage for the rest.

Ephesians 1:13-14 You also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in Him, were sealed in Him with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption [full payment] of the purchase, to the praise of His glory.

But the same word here rendered "earnest" or "pledge" or "guarantee" also and especially means betrothal. This is what St. Paul means above all when he writes, "[He] has also sealed us, and given the pledge of the Spirit in our hearts." (2 Corinthians 1:22) and " … God, Who also has given to us the pledge of the Spirit". (2 Corinthians 5:5) The pledge is Christ's promise to you of marriage. You are now, in Holy Chrismation, betrothed to Him. It is a promise He will never break (although He will not force you never to break it off).

There is more to say about this Mystery, but this post is too long already.