The Holy Spirit: The Giver of Life

Mysteries and paradoxes flow from this which I can only hint at with my puny mind and blathering tongue.  The first of these is that, as Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians12:3).  This seems like a contradiction since Jesus is the one who reveals the Spirit to us, but it is not.  The Catechism tells us that

God’s Spirit, who reveals God, makes known to us Christ, his Word, his living Utterance, but the Spirit does not speak of himself. The Spirit who “has spoken through the prophets” makes us hear the Father’s Word, but we do not hear the Spirit himself. We know him only in the movement by which he reveals the Word to us and disposes us to welcome him in faith. The Spirit of truth who “unveils” Christ to us “will not speak on his own”(John 16:13). Such properly divine self-effacement explains why “the world cannot receive [him], because it neither sees him nor knows him,” while those who believe in Christ know the Spirit because he dwells with them (John 14:17).

It is difficult to articulate the way the Spirit works precisely because the Spirit is silent about himself.  He always refers us to the other two Persons of the Godhead.  He works within us and among us and brings to our remembrance all that Jesus has said (cf. John 14:26). Through the sacraments and his word, the Spirit imparts to us the same divine life that Jesus possesses.  As Paul says, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!”‘ (Galatians 4:6). And by that Spirit, we are able to think God’s thoughts after him in our own creaturely, limited way, by listening to the word of Christ.  So Paul tells us:

God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.

The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:10-16)

The Spirit’s work is always prior.  That is, as Jesus puts it, we do not choose him, he chooses us (John 15:16).  No person has ever become a believer in Jesus by figuring things out on their own, or by finding Jesus acceptable to their discriminating palate and deigning to let him save them.  Our relationship to the Spirit is always one of response to his overtures, always one of the eye receiving light, never of us shedding light on God.  He is the kindling flame and we are the candle, fashioned by him, not only from the primordial beginning of our own life in the womb, but from the very foundations of the universe.

He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4-6)

Those who imagine they are pursuing God sooner or later always discover that they were chasing him till he caught them. The Spirit is around us, before us, and always anticipates us, like a womb.

Indeed, the Tradition of the Church with respect to the work of the Spirit is suffused with more than a little curiously gestational and birth imagery.  Jesus is conceived by him in the womb of Mary (Luke 1).  Paul speaks to the Galatians of Christ being “formed” in us like a fetus (Galatians 4:19).  Jesus speaks of his own Passion, Death, and Resurrection, which he accomplishes by the power of the Spirit, using the image of a woman in labor (John 16:21).  He speaks of the signs accompanying the kingdom as the beginning of the birth pains of the new world (Matthew 24:8).  Revelation 12 describes the Marian heavenly woman bringing forth the Messiah and us–the “rest of her offspring”–after the labors and trials she endures.  And most profoundly, in the sacrament of Baptism we are “born again of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).

Unfortunately, in our time of flat-footed and intensely politicized literalism, mention of the use of such feminine imagery in Scripture to refer to the Spirit can easily lead to the foolish question of whether God is male or female.  You may as well ask if water is hydrogen or oxygen.  We are made in God’s image, not he in ours.  We are like him.  He is not like us.  Masculine and feminine reflect things about him, but he is beyond gender.  We call him “he” for two reasons in the Tradition: 1) because he is personal and not “it” and 2) because in relation to us, he is (as Jesus himself reveals) “Father”.

But the fact of a feminine dimension to the Spirit remains and is revealed to us in Scripture.  We will explore this more in the next chapter, but for the moment, the thing to note is this curious matter of gestational imagery and that it points to the Spirit’s involvement, not only in our being born again, but in a certain gestational work in the life of the believer before we are born again.  The great image of this is, of course, Mary who not only gestates Jesus in her womb, but who “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51) as a disciple does.  Jesus’ disciples likewise spend three years gestating in the womb of the Spirit until they are brought to the birth of faith by the events of the Passion, Resurrection, and Pentecost.  And Paul demonstrates another sort of birth–one he graphically describes, again with gestational imagery as an “untimely” birth (i.e. a miscarriage or abortion)—when Jesus appears to him on the Damascus Road and confronts him about the long agonizing work of the Spirit in his soul with the words “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14).

This work of gestation–of preparing a human being to freely say “Yes” to Jesus–has no one-size-fits-all template.  Each heart is different.  Each person has their own story.  But the work of the Spirit is always to bring people to that place of “Yes” to Jesus and to help them remain in him like a branch in the vine (John 15).  He creates in us the thirst and then quenches it, creates in us the hunger, and then feeds us, creates in us the longing for life, joy, love, peace, and every other heavenly gift and then takes us to the One who gives us these things.  The gestation, like every gestation, is not an end in itself, but is aimed at birth.  And the great sacrament of birth is Baptism. As St. Irenaeus says:

Baptism gives us the grace of new birth in God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit. For those who bear God’s Spirit are led to the Word, that is, to the Son, and the Son presents them to the Father, and the Father confers incorruptibility on them. And it is impossible to see God’s Son without the Spirit, and no one can approach the Father without the Son, for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and the knowledge of God’s Son is obtained through the Holy Spirit.[1]

When we say the Spirit is the Giver of Life, we mean every kind of life.  Not only the immense diversity of bios we see all around us in creation—from the virus to the blue whale–receives its life from God, but above all those who are “born again of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) with the divine zoe life of the Blessed Trinity are given life by him as well. Note that Jesus, who himself only lived to the age of 33, makes no promises of abundant bios (cf. John 10:10).  We may or may not live a long time.  We may or may not have children (he had none).  But we are given zoe in abundance by him.  The Holy Spirit makes bios. But He communicates zoe—the divine life of the Blessed Trinity. The question is how?

On Monday, we will find out.

[1] St. Irenaeus, Dem. ap. 7: SCh 62,41-42


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