+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the chief jobs of a clergyperson–whether a priest in a sacramental church or a minister in a more reformed church–is to teach the faith. This seems like it should be one of the most noncontroversial claims one could say about an ordained person’s responsibility, but I often fear we don’t do a very good job of it. I don’t know whether this can be blamed on the anti-intellectualism which too often distrusts expertise in our culture or on clergy being too lazy to do it or perhaps too poorly educated themselves or some combination of these factors. In any event, it seems to me that there is a pretty serious problem with basic biblical and theological literacy within the church.
This catechetical crisis becomes apparent any time a survey comes out about what American Christians actually believe. You’ll find shocking numbers of professed Christians who don’t believe in Christ’s divinity or sinlessness, who believe metaphysical claims that are closer to Buddhism or Gnosticism than to Christianity, and who have views of human nature which are incompatible with the doctrines of original sin and the means of salvation. A 2018 survey, and this is the reason I bring all this up, found that fully 59% of US adults believe “that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being.”
As I’ve already said, I think much of the blame can be lain at the feet of clergy, because, while important, lay-folk tend not to hold full-time, paid positions in which getting one’s theology straight is (or should be) a work requirement. So, let me first apologize for my profession and for myself where I have fallen down on the job in this regard, and second, attempt to dispel this popular misconception about the nature of the Holy Spirit on this great feast on which we celebrate His descent upon the Church.
So, the Holy Spirit is not merely a force. He is a personal being. We may get into the nitty-gritty of Trinitarian theology next week, on Trinity Sunday, but the classical way of explaining the Godhead is that God is three hyspostases in one ousia, three persons of one substance or being. This gets complicated; like I said, we may get into the weeds next week if you’re up for it. The point is that the Holy Spirit is just as much a person as the Father and the Son. Just as the Father is not merely some abstract “ground of being” but a person with whom we can be in relationship, just as the son is not just the universe’s ordering principle, but somebody with whom we can speak as a Lord and Savior, so is the Spirit not just an animating force, but one with whom we can relate and pray and gain support as one would with a friend or sibling.
Perhaps part of the reason we have not recognized this is because the way we pray has been codified in such a way as to sometimes obscure it. I am not saying this is an altogether bad thing; public worship should be done decently and in good order, and the prayers with which we’ve become so familiar tend to do a good job of highlighting what we call the “economic Trinity.” We typically pray to God the Father, through or in the name of God the Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. This suggests, quite rightly, that in the mystery of Salvation, we are brought into and instructed in the relations of the persons in the Godhead. We have some, though fewer, prayers which we direct to the second person of the Trinity, Jesus himself, and I suspect these are more common in our private and particularly our extemporaneous prayers than in our public liturgies.
Few and far between, though, are prayers addressed to the third person of the Trinity. Our Communion hymn this morning is one of those prayers, the Veni Creator Spiritus. In our Sacraments the Holy Spirit is invoked, but invariably by a request that the Father send the same (whether upon the Bread and Wine, the Ordinand, the husband and wife, or whatever) rather than by praying to the Spirit directly.
There is no reason that I can think of, though, why we ought not pray to the Spirit directly, and that’s really the point of this rambling homily. Jesus tells us that the Spirit is our Counselor. We’d not have much trust in counsel (therapeutic or legal) if we didn’t have the opportunity to talk with its provider. Paul tells us that the Spirit prays on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words.” We’d not trust a mere force or principle to be our advocate before God or the world; we’d trust a person who is trustworthy, and this the Spirit of God is.
I am not here advocating for superstitious enthusiasm, but I don’t think our primary danger (at least in our context) is to be found in sectarian revivalist movements. Transport me to a snake-handling community in Appalachia and I might feel differently. A genuine appreciation for pneumatology, the theology of the Holy Spirit, and an authentic devotion to the same Spirit can only lead to good, because he is God. In that vein, I would like to conclude with a prayer drafted by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy–the Roman Catholic group responsible for translating the Latin texts of the Mass into our language–and pray that we grow in devotion to God as he is revealed in the Spirit:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful.
And kindle in them the fire of your love.
Come, Holy Spirit, and they shall be created.
And you will renew the face of the earth. Amen.