Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Reflections on the Holy Spirit

I have been thinking quite a lot about the Holy Spirit recently, not only because Pentecost is coming up, but because the book I'm reading right now, Life in Christ by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, has brought out some very interesting points that I never considered before.

One of the things he mentions that has struck me is that the day of Pentecost is significant for understanding how the Holy Spirit is to act in our lives. He says that the Jewish feast of Pentecost was not only a time of bringing forth the first fruits of the harvest but also, by the time of Jesus, it was celebrated as the day on which the Jewish people remember the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, a law written on stone tablets by the finger of God.

According to Cantalamessa, this feast finds its fulfillment in the coming of the Holy Spirit, who writes the law of the new covenant in the hearts of the faithful (But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.- Jer 31:33), taking away stony hearts and making them natural hearts (I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. - Ez 36:25-27). All this the Holy Spirit does in order to give us the "new law," not external prescriptions forcing those subject to the law to obey, but an interior desire to do the good, "forcing" those under the "law of the Spirit" by means of attraction to fulfill the commands given to us. Without the new law of the Spirit, even the prescriptions of the gospel in the beatitudes and the new command to love one another would simply become new exterior prescriptions like the old law and not bring about salvation.

Not only does Cantalamessa's reflection shed light for me on Romans and the issue of the law of the Spirit, but it also helps me to understand what Paul is trying to evoke when in Romans he speaks about having "the firstfruits of the Spirit" (Rom 8:23), ie that this is a reference to the feast of Pentecost as a feast of presenting the first fruits. In a way, in the Christian life, there is a certain fruit given by God... the firstfruits. Maybe this firstfruit is the grace of faith or of conversion or the grace of a deeper understanding of who God is in our lives, but in any event, it is this fruit brought about by God that helps us to do all that we are asked of by God. Fr. Cantalamessa later speaks of the need to see grace (read help of the Holy Spirit), not as something that comes to us when we have reached the limits of our human strength and then appeal to God for help, but rather to see grace as a gift that comes first, that enables us to go beyond our limited strength and run the good race of the Christian life.

I was also wondering what significance seeing the day of Pentecost as a fulfillment of the day the law was given to Moses might have for a new reading on the prologue of the Gospel of John. The verse that came to mind as I was reading Cantalamessa was John 1:16-17 "From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace (or "grace upon grace"), because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

I hear the word "grace" and I immediately think of the saying from the Catechism that "grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us" CCC 2003. I understand "gift of the Spirit" to mean, not so much something the Spirit gives (though the Spirit certainly gives "graces"), but that the Holy Spirit is the gift which is given, ie that the Holy Spirit is the "gift" ("xaris" in Greek, which is the same word for "grace") "of God most high." Grace is a help, and certainly this help in the form of "graces" comes from the Holy Spirit, but as a "Helper", an "Advocate," the Holy Spirit is "Grace" par excellance. So then from the fullness of Christ have we not received "grace upon grace," the gift of the Holy Spirit? Then I hear the word "truth" and immediately think of "the Spirit of Truth which the world can not accept" of John 14:17. "Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." Did not the Holy Spirit come upon believers because of Jesus' coming, because of His passion and resurrection? So here we have the contraposition of the Law coming through Moses and grace and truth coming through Jesus. I wonder if this is not John making a reference to the fulfillment of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit as the new law. Just a thought, and I am open to any reflections or corrections that anyone might have on this topic.

In any event, as Kierkegaard might say, it is a shame to talk about God in the third person instead of speaking to Him in the second person... (I mean "person" in the grammatical sense not the trinitarian sense)... So let us pray:

Come O You Holy Spirit of God. Give us the free gift of Yourself and bring us your santifying and purifying grace. You and You alone can mold our hearts and make them more and more open to communion with the Holy Trinity. You and You alone can inspire in us prayer, can aid us in all our undertakings, and guide us in all truth. Be for us our vision and our light, form in us Your fruit, Your gifts, Your charisms, that we may be ever made anew in the image of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. O Advocate and ultimate help of all Christians, come to our assistance, so that we may ever give glory to the Father and to the Son, and to You the Holy Spirit, forever and into eternity. Amen.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Simple Gospel Truth

A friend of mine was telling me a story about his niece.  She is 3 going on 4, and everywhere she goes she takes this dirty, ragged, old doll with her.  Nothing can convince her to love another, more beautiful, more perfect doll.  She loves that one.  And she doesn't have a reason.  She just loves it.

The lesson to this story is that God loves us much like my friend's niece loves her doll.  It is not because we are already all nice and beautiful or without fault or defect that, then and only then, He begins to love us.  No, on the contrary.  He loves us.

In the Gospel of Luke 24:47, before ascending into heaven, Jesus sends His disciples out to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  This repentance is not repentance in order to obtain forgiveness, as if one had to buy God's mercy with acts of piety, but repentance in order to open one's self up to receive God's mercy, that is to turn away from sin and toward God, a turning, which, if we go by the story of the Merciful Father and the prodigal son in chapter 15 of Luke, God the Father sees even when we are still "far off," and to which He responds by running out to meet us and embracing us, even leaping over mountains and bounding over hills.

God's love comes first.  1 John 4:10 makes this clear. "In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins." 

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, in his book Life In Christ puts it this way (I'm paraphasing).  The order of events is not sin, repentance, salvation, but sin salvation, repentence.  It is God's overwhelming, relentless and ever-faithful love that leads us to conversion (if we let Him work... we can still say "no").

Mary's example here is important since she said "Fiat mihi secondum verbum tuum" (may it be done unto me according to thy word), and what word has God revealed to us if not the Word, His Son, Jesus (whose name means "Yahweh saves," "I am who saves").  His will for us is this salvation, this communion, His very life.  Let us say "yes" to it.  Let us say "Amen."