(This is the fifth article in a series written for Lent. Because I’ve been a bit slow in my writing, the series will continue on into the Easter season. Once again, I have borrowed my chapter title from Met. Ware’s book, “The Orthodox Way” – but, unless otherwise noted, the content is mine.)
It seems a bit odd to me to be writing of “God as Spirit” while the Church calendar is leading us more deeply into the Passion and death of Christ.
It is at this time that we are particularly confronted with the Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, in His most vulnerable human state. He is very much Man.
As painful as it is, we cannot help but face the reality that the Person of God who became one of us suffered greatly in His humanity – physically, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually – as part of the plan for our salvation.
With the profound humanness of this time, it almost seems as though I should be waiting for Pentecost to arrive before I write about God as Spirit.
And yet I shall not wait – for the Spirit is very much part of our current encounter with the dying and rising Christ.
In a previous chapter (“God as Creator”), Met. Ware wrote that the human person has three interdependent aspects: the body, the soul and the spirit.
In his use of this term, the soul is defined as that which animates the flesh and makes it alive. Thus all living creatures have souls – certainly the animals and perhaps the plants, as well as Homo sapiens.
The spirit, on the other hand, according to Met. Ware, is the “breath of God” in us which sets us uniquely apart from the rest of the created world. It is through this spirit that we approach God and enter into union with Him.
This spirit breathed into us by God (small “s”) must be differentiated from the Holy Spirit (capital “S”). The spirit in us is God’s creation; the Holy Spirit is God, the uncreated.
A thought came to me as I was writing the last article and struggling with how to conceptualize the reality of Jesus as both God and Man.
When Jesus was conceived of the Virgin and she asked Gabriel how this could be, the Gospel of Luke tells us that the angel replied that “the holy Spirit will come upon you” (Luke 1: 35).
Hence, it occurred to me that Jesus was fully human while living on earth, having every aspect of body and mind that we do. However, perhaps His spirit was the Spirit, thus defining Him as God while also human.
(Please bear in mind that this is just a thought of mine and not doctrine. Might even be heresy, though I hope not.)
In any event, I think we have every reason to believe that the Holy Spirit was fully with the Son, as was the Father, during His life on earth. How could it be otherwise?
The Incarnation did not fracture the Trinity such that the Son was no longer living in perfect love and unity with the Father and the Spirit. He was not temporarily absent from the Godhead.
Rather, Jesus, as the Incarnate Son, needed to experience the Father and the Spirit through His human faculties in much the same way that we do. We see this in the Gospel narratives in which He prayed aloud to the Father or went off to pray alone.
Unlike us, however, Jesus did not separate Himself from God through sin. Though we know little about the personal prayer of Jesus, it is hard to imagine it being anything other than loving communion.
In addition to Jesus relating to the Father, the Gospels also describe the Spirit’s active role in the life of Christ.
St. Luke tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where He was tempted prior to beginning His ministry. At the end of the 40 days, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).
Scripture also relates how the Spirit testified to the Son at Jesus’ Baptism, descending in the form of a dove.
St. Luke’s Gospel further describes how Jesus publicly acknowledged that the work of the Spirit, described by the prophet Isaiah, was being fulfilled in Him,
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners… (Isaiah 61: 1)
There are a great many other citations in Scripture but, upon reflection, I realize that the ones I most easily call to mind are those in which Jesus was promising the Holy Spirit to us.
As important as this promise and its fulfillment are, my focus on it has overshadowed any consideration of what the Holy Spirit was to Jesus.
What gave Jesus, the human being, the strength to fast for 40 days and fend off the evil one?
What enabled Jesus, son of Mary, the ability to cast out demons, cure disease and raise the dead?
Where did Jesus, a mere carpenter from Galilee, obtain so much wisdom that even the most learned rabbis could not outwit Him?
Is it not possible – no – is it not a virtual certainty, that the Holy Spirit was already for the human Jesus all that He was promised to be for us?
The Spirit, Jesus told us, is the Spirit of truth who teaches us all things. The Spirit lives in us and remains with us always. The Spirit is our Advocate, our Comforter.
As we come to realize that this Spirit was intimately a part of the life of Jesus, how we might we come to reflect anew upon the Passion of Christ?
Many people, both children and adults, grapple with the profound suffering that Jesus experienced in His crucifixion. It troubles us deeply.
I remember how many years ago the young child of some friends of mine asked me why Jesus had to die.
Others look critically upon the Father: what kind of “loving” Father requires His Son to suffer a painful, bloody and humiliating death?
Some among us feel overwhelmed with guilt that such a “price” had to be paid for our sins – while secretly we wonder why such a price was required. God being God could certainly have saved us without His Son experiencing such agony.
While I cannot deny the horrible death that Jesus endured, I do not think we are meant to dwell on the tortures and the torments. Or at least not nearly so much as many of us were taught to do.
Jesus is not unique among humans in being betrayed or in undergoing a painful and shameful death.
Can we say, for example, that the Jews who were turned in by their neighbors, who were stripped of their families and everything they owned, beaten, starved and exterminated in Nazi concentration camps had it better?
Certainly not. If suffering were all that it took to bring us to salvation, we would have no need of Christ. There has been more than enough suffering in every generation of humanity to cover our sins.
A couple of points to consider…
First, though Jesus was the Person of the Trinity who became Incarnate, He did not do so alone.
I do not mean to suggest, of course, that the Father and the Spirit also took on flesh. However, the Persons of the Trinity did not separate themselves in the Incarnation. Where Jesus was and what He experienced as a human being was part of the life of the Trinity.
I do not believe that the Father said to the Son, “You must go and suffer to bring back my children who are enslaved to sin. The only ransom I will accept is your painful, bloody death. Fail to do My will and you will end up like them, consigned to eternal damnation.”
No, these were neither the words nor the intent of our loving Father.
Though I can only speculate about such matters, it is my sense that the Trinity as One, in the endless love we call God, longed to save us and set us free.
From the beginning of our time, this Union of Love desired for us to join them freely, while simultaneously knowing that we would fail to do so on our own.
God knew that we would fail, not only because He is omniscient and unrestrained by time, but also because He created us. As created beings, we are not independently capable of loving as He loves.
In other words, He created us in His image and likeness that we might be able share in His perfect love. But He did not create us to be Him, to be that perfect Love that belongs to the Trinity alone.
The Trinity, One in Love, knew what it would take to teach us the way of love. To find the way, we needed to experience the fullness of this love on our level.
And so He became the Way to Love among us.
God knew that His human life would be painful. It was not, however, a demand One Person made of Another. It was not a price or a ransom – at least not in the way we typically use those terms.
It was a gift, an outpouring of His Person in a supreme act of love.
The Son was not in it alone. The Father and the Spirit were ever with Him, never abandoning Him for a moment – for the desire for our salvation emerged from their loving Union.
Yet this does not mean that Jesus did not suffer – that He did not feel pain, betrayal and abandonment. As a human being, He could not help but to feel these things.
Hence, His cry from the cross (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”) conveys to us in truth that His death was a very real and very human one.
Have we, in times of great pain or anguish, ever experienced God as absent?
Probably all of us have or will undergo this experience of divine abandonment at some point.
Yet our feeling of abandonment does not mean that God actually abandons – or that the Father and Spirit left Christ on His own in His agony.
This is not to say the Persons of the Trinity suffered. As noted elsewhere, God does not suffer. But this need not trouble us – for it is not co-suffering that sustains us nor would that be what sustained Jesus in His Passion.
Jesus was, I believe, ever in Love and sustained by Love throughout hardships of His human experience.
He loved freely, voluntarily, as a human being. He did what we were unable to do – and did so by the power of the Spirit.
Having chosen to come among us, He first gave Himself as food for our journey and then gave His life to be the Way for us to follow.
All so that we might enter everlasting life and love with Him.
I know I haven’t explained it well. How could I, when it is a mystery I do not understand myself?
If the saving act of Christ is more about love than suffering, should I still feel sorrow for my sins? Should I let go of the nagging guilt I feel because Jesus endured all of this for me?
Yes and yes.
Certainly I must feel sorrow for my sins. The Gospel is very clear about the need for repentance.
The problem for so many of us, however, is that we tend to associate repentance with guilt and shame – to the point that they seem synonymous.
Perhaps this cannot be totally avoided. To fully acknowledge my need of salvation, I cannot hide from the pain that my sins and weaknesses have caused myself and others.
But this is only the beginning, the very first step.
Once acknowledged, to repent is to change – to change my mind, to turn my heart in a completely different direction.
If I am paralyzed by my guilt and shame, I will not be able to do this. I will be so focused on myself and my defects that I won’t see the Loving One standing right before me, beckoning me to follow.
It might surprise us to learn that this experience is a taste of hell. Yes – hell. To be in the presence of Holy Love and be so focused on self that I do not know the Love is there.
Encountering sinners, Jesus gave the simplest and most guilt-free of messages: “Your sins are forgiven.” “From now on, avoid this sin.” “Follow Me.”
His sternest warnings were to those who had their eyes closed. How else could He try to awaken those who tried to protect their egos by hiding behind a false holiness?
My ego, my will – I must give it to God. I cannot trust myself to hold onto it.
It not only pervades my sin – but also my repentance. What else is all of that guilt and shame but another tendril of evil trying to pull me away from Him?
In the end, it is only love that saves. I must surrender my ego, my will. I must allow it to be crucified with Christ – not because it is demanded of me but because it is the only real gift of love that I have to offer.
I fear, as perhaps Jesus feared, not having the strength, the courage, the love in me to do this.
In fact, I know I do not.
But never was I expected to do this alone.
The Way has come and shown HImself to me.
The Father listens to my every prayer.
The Spirit dwells within me always, teaching and protecting and comforting me.
And so I surrender…to the love of the Father, by the power of the Spirit, in union with Christ our Savior to Whom belongs all glory and praise.