Friday 6 December 2013

H is for the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit (To Άγιο Πνεύμα)

The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, of the same essence and equal rank as the Father and the Son
The Holy Spirit was the last figure of Trinitarian theology to be dogmatically defined in Orthodoxy. From the point of view of the founding of the Orthodox Church, the visitation of the Holy Spirit to the disciples 50 days after Christ’s resurrection is vital. This is described in Acts 2:1-4 as a rush of mighty wind and as tongues of fire which rested on all of the apostles thus filling them with the Holy Spirit. It was this infusion of the Holy Spirit, a visitation promised by Christ, that gave them the courage to preach, the ability to speak in foreign tongues (so the message could be spread to all) and the charisma – the seal of approval so to speak- that what they were preaching really was the word of God. This last is important in Orthodoxy which is an Apostolaic Church, its authority resting on an unbroken line of the transference of this charisma from ordained bishops and priests today right back to one of the original apostles who together received the Holy Spirit. For this reason, Pentecost has rightly been called the Birthday of the Orthodox Church.

icon of Pentacost .

Better Than Delphi…
To understand the importance of this “Seal”, you have to put yourself back to the times when there were preachers preaching various versions of gods, messiahs, and so all over the Middle East, and remember that even among early believers in the New Testament there was some confusion about whether the new Messiah was Christ or John the Baptist.
 In any religion or culture, what is Truth; what is not? The ancient Greeks had solved this problem to some extent by Oracles, Dephi in particular. A leader might propose series of laws or a plan of action, but finding some higher sanction for this was tougher. A trip to Delphi and a suitably obscure response by a priestess which could then be interpreted by priests was the solution. A positive response would put the required seal of approval on the law or plan especially if the leader-petitioner was powerful enough. What is interesting, from the point of view of human nature, is that people pretty much everywhere do want to believe that their actions are sanctioned by a higher source rather than accepting another possibility elucidated so succinctly by Thucydides’ famous cynical remark: Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
How much more important was Truth in this new religion where eternal life was the reward for correct belief and eternal punishment the result of error?

The Holy Spirit: Baptism and the Hierarchy
Baptism was the means by which individual believers could receive the Holy Spirit, hence its importance as the ritual which symbolizes each person’s rebirth into the life of the Church and the fellowship of God.

But everyone enthused by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues would prove a problem early on, as Paul’s Epistles reveal. He realized that some kind of order was necessary to the church, or anyone who believed he ‘had the spirit’ night interpret the scriptures as he or she thought fit. (Could he have possibly envisioned Pentecostals, born again Christians, or even Protestants? ... Probably not.)  

Paul realized some hierarchical order was necessary, so the idea of a having clergy with bishops and a chain of command developed with deacons, priests, and bishops and implicit in this plan was  the idea that a bishop could interpret the Holy Spirit better than a layman or a simple deacon or priest. But what if bishops disagreed?

The issue became even more important when Christianity became, first the preferred religion of the Roman Empire, and later the official one. Constantine, the first emperor to accept Christianity realized from the get go at the Council of Nicaea in 325 that rules had to be imposed on belief even among bishops who at the time held wildly different views.  He realized that in the vast and diverse empire which he intended to rule the chosen church as one body had to be the ultimate authority on Truth. It was therefore decided that when the Church met as an ecumenical body and in the correct spirit, then the collective decisions of the Council were inspired by the Holy Spirit and thus truly represented God’s will. Council decisions were prefaced with “We believe that”  ‘We’ included the Holy Spirit. This collective quality of church decisions makes Orthodoxy a very democratic institution. The Holy Spirit infuses all of the bishops collectively.  A Patriarch  does not have infallibility as an individual.

A skeptic could have a field day here, but be careful The Gospel of Matthew 12:31-32, states that the one sin that God will not forgive, and will result in eternal condemnation is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
The Bible and the Holy Spirit
As Protestants and other sects have proven, the Bible can be interpreted in many ways. And any good historian can show just how edited the book has been and how much later than events occurred the stories were written, internal inconsistencies and so on. And of course, many books, once accepted as God’s word got left out. The Church explains this by pointing out that the Holy Spirit ultimately guided them to choose the books of the Bible as we know it and that the writers of the chosen books were themselves inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Iconic Representations of the Holy Spirit

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is first mentioned in Mark and appears ‘like a dove’ at Christ’s baptism, and a dove is the most popular form in art although lightening-like rays, rays, a hand, a cloud, or a seal (the wax variety) are used as well. As a dove, the Holy Spirit appears in icons of Christ’s baptism, of Pentecost, and is perched on pulpits of  Greek Churches with outspread wings, the only iconic figure in Greek churches consistently  rendered in three dimensions. (2)

In spite of the appearance of imminent flight, the dove  will never take wing. It’s role is to literally provide  the base and basis for the New Testament which rests on it throughout the service.

Why is the Holy Spirit the only modern Manifestation of the Trinity?

That is an interesting question. Historically it is true that the God of the Old Testament and New has been very reluctant to appear in any essence other than the Holy Spirit since Biblical times. There is a wonderful book by Adolf Holl called The Left Hand of God: a Biography of the Holy Spirit (Bantam Books, c 1997) which chronicles the appearances or alleged appearances of the Holy Spirit.  Holl was a Roman Catholic priest and lecturer and this book got him suspended but I really cannot understand why. It is a brilliant and witty discussion of manifestations of Holy Spirit until today and praised by many theologians including Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard College. I have always believed that a religion that tries to protect its prerogatives by banning any work or person either questioning or exploring it must have a few doubts about its hold on its congregation. This book is serious, funny, and quite profound.


(1) Apparently in Byzantine times, an eagle held up the New Testament. This creates no serious symbolic problems since John, the apostle whose symbol is the eagle and whose gospel is the favorite of Orthodoxy fits as a supporter of the gospels too, but the dove strikes me as being more symbolically appropriate. When I asked a priest in Athens about this change, his comment was that the dove was better because Orthodoxy was a church that loved peace… 

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