God as Spirit

(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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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6 thoughts on “God as Spirit

  1. albert

    Hi Mary, Its Holy Wednesday, and I just read about the woman who poured oil on Jesus’s head. It jarred me, even though I must have heard that story many many times. I was moved, but not sure why. I think it was a gift, though I am leary of making assumptions like that. Fearful of pride maybe, but more likely another example of weak faith.

    Then another gift: your reflection here. I had put off reading it, waiting, I like to tell myself, for the right moment– but really just not ready for slow prayerful reading because it has consequences: take it seriously and do something about it, or drop it into the I’ll deal-with-that-later drawer, like a bill to be paid or a chore to be done, and risk losing track.

    So I was trying to picture the annointing incident in the Gospel story for today, putting myself there, but of course it’s almost impossible to experience, much less understand the cultural context. Oil ( or was it really perfume, as some said) on His head during dinner?? at someone else’s house, and that person a leper?? There are all sorts of ideas to think about and meanings to explain with regard to that incident. But the simple picture was what stayed with me. And that’s when I opened your post without even actually deciding to, if that makes sense.

    Reading it was like having fresh water poured over my head. Not oil, not perfume, just clear water– like a kind of baptism but not really. I mean, I was refreshed, alert, awakened. What you wrote came at an important time: I had been avoiding Holy Week. Too many childhood and even later-on memories of vivid sermons and somber stations of the cross.

    I believe, but I’m also easily frightened and confused–also distracted by the intellectual environment I live in, my family and friends who are so put off by church history and contemporary church scandals that they distrust the priestly crowd, leaving God as a possibility no one can really comprehend.

    But your honest, direct writing seems to make it more likely that I can open up and give in and experience the next few days. Thank you. (I’m tempted to say that I’ll probably lose momentum and fall off a bit, but that’s putting it all on me. Thanks too for reminding me about the Spirit.)

    I hope that you are preparing these meditations for a little book to be published. It would be so nice to have in hand late at night, and to carry around in my pocket for quick glimpses or waiting room reading.

  2. mary Post author

    Thanks, Al, for the beautifully thoughtful comment.

    You started me wondering about the woman who “anointed” Jesus. From what I have been able to ascertain (Bible footnotes, etc.), the woman anointed him with spikenard which is a perfumed oil, an essential oil derived from a flowering plant, and very expensive. It is interesting to note that John has her anointing His feet whereas the accounts in Mark and Matthew have her pouring it on His head (assuming they are all referring to the same incident).

    In some accounts, the woman is identified as Mary, the sister of Lazarus. This would make some sense since these siblings also lived in Bethany. One note indicated that she was anointing Him in anticipation of His trial and execution as a criminal – which would preclude His body being ceremonially anointed. Another note suggests that the accounts of it being poured on His head are alluding to a regal anointing. (I was reminded of Samuel pouring oil over the young David, making him God’s anointed one, with “anointed one” being the meaning of the words “christ” in Greek and “messiah” in Hebrew).

    I find it interesting also that Jesus allowed the woman to do this. Generally, Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is not seeking any honor or attention for Himself – and here she is publicly anointing Him with very costly nard. Since this is shortly before His arrest, it seems that perhaps He is allowing her to indirectly proclaim who He really is – and the Gospel writers want us to know this – He is not a common criminal but the Anointed One.

    Much to ponder here. I appreciate you drawing my attention to the passage for a deeper read. I also don’t think there is any reason to be hesitant in labeling your experience as “gift”. If we don’t acknowledge the gift, we will fail to thank God. I know I sometimes tell God when I am thanking Him for some desirable thing that I realize He may not have arranged it all for my pleasure (e.g. a sunny day) – but I am still grateful that He allowed it to happen. It is, of course, much harder to remember to thank Him when He allows undesirable things to come to me – even though they too are necessary.

    I appreciate your kind words about my writing. I think it would be a hard sell to a publisher, given how few readers I have online. If people aren’t reading it for free, why would they pay for a published copy? (But I am grateful that you and a handful of others keep reading – quality of readership over quantity!)

  3. albert

    But just think what a nice gift a small cloth-bound book like that would make. I understand that you mighy be reluctant to give it to friends, but I wouldn’t.

    In fact, I’m going up to the library next week and print out several copies. It will be fairly easy to reformat the original so as to create smaller pages, say 4″ x 5.5″ and I think I’ll make something nice for a cover, maybe a copy of that beautiful butterfly that you made into a card. Unless you suggest a title, I’ll use a biblical reference; e.g., “The Better Part” by Mary.

    I have another idea for publishing your work, but that can keep for now.

  4. mary Post author

    Feel free, Al – give it to your friends! I do like the title you chose. Although there is another book out there with that name, we won’t let that bother us. 😊

  5. albert

    Thanks for the reference. I see that Fr. John’s book weighs in at over 1000 pages; and his credentials are impressive. Different league, different expectations.

    I’ll come up with a better title soon. How about “Godwards”? Ok, OK, too clever.

    Let’s see. . . “Sitting with Mary”? Or maybe “Mary’s Better Part”? Aaahh, nope, they are both unnecessarily personal. But here’s an idea, “The Priceless Thing,”

    I’ll have to thing about that one for a while.

    Have you read his book, by the way. If so, do you recommend it.? I know there’s a danger in piling up books at the expense of prayer itself.

  6. mary Post author

    I haven’t read the book – though it sounds interesting.

    I kind of like the title “A priceless thing” (fancy that!) rather that “The …” It’s a bit more mysterious and also provides an excuse to quote St. Porphyrios. However, since I am nothing and have no will of my own, there is little more I can say. 🙂

    When you have a chance, Al, send me an email. I’d send you one but I don’t remember which address is your preferred one.

    In the meantime, a very holy Good Friday to all of my Orthodox friends.

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