The Forgotten Person

Some theologians have referred to the Holy Spirit as the Forgotten Person of the Trinity.

Christians are hardly likely to forget the Holy Spirit, since they make the sign of the cross thousands of times a year. But the question is: what do we know about *him*?

The Holy Spirit is not so much forgotten as hidden. By *his* very name, the Holy Spirit is the most esoteric, the most abstract, and consequently the most difficult to understand of the Trinitarian persons. For us, the other Two Persons are more approachable: Jesus, first of all, because He became one of us, sharing totally in our humanity. The Father is described intimately as our Abba (Daddy), the One to whom Jesus constantly refers. But the Spirit? Words will consistently fail us when speaking of the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel, the Holy Spirit slowly but powerfully emerges, but only in symbols or metaphors because He is not material and therefore not visible. The New Testament’s first referral to the Spirit is when Mary is found “with child through the holy spirit” (Matthew 1:18), or in Luke when Gabriel tells Mary how she can become a mother, the mother of the Messiah.

The Spirit as a dove hovers over Jesus at his baptism, a symbol of his calling to bring the good news of salvation to all.

When Nicodemus comes secretly at night to question the new Rabbi, Jesus attempts to describe how a person can be “born again” in the spiritual sense. He refers to the Spirit as “wind”, an unseen but powerful force, only perceivable by its effects.

The Samaritan woman at the well is bold enough to question Jesus as to where God must be worshiped. We too think certain conditions must be met before we worship: there’s a right place to worship, a right person to preach to us, a right congregation to worship with, a right style of liturgy to be observed. If we can find all of these in one place, that’s where we’ll worship. Jesus simply corrects both us and the Samaritan woman with a few words:

God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
(John 4:24)

Unfortunately, that leaves us with no more excuses!

Perhaps the most troubling references to the Spirit are made after the Last Supper. Seeking to comfort his disciples, Jesus tells them:

“. . . grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6b-7)

How could Jesus’ absence be better? How could the invisible Spirit comfort the disciples who were losing the visible Christ?

Recall the first stirrings of creation:

The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

In the beginning of our spiritual life (and for much of it throughout), we too are formless and void. In order to become spiritual beings we need to be emptied of all that prevents God from shaping us into his image. The emptying process can be almost unbearable. We don’t even know how to pray! But St. Paul encourages us with words from his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings.

We are constantly being emptied, separated from things or persons we love and consider absolutely necessary to our existence: parents, spouses, children, siblings, dearest friends, homes, our life work, and finally from our health and life itself. Such separations leave us destitute, desolate, abandoned. At moments like this we might question God’s love for us.

This reaction is so totally human, and therefore Christ totally understands. He knows that we are incomplete until, ironically, we are emptied – even of his own physical presence. Space must be created in us, making room for the Spirit of God who will accomplish the final act of our divinisation. The coming of the Holy Spirit in our lives is Christ’s crowning achievement for us, since it enables us to transform even an evil world into a place of love and truth.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14: 16-18)

I love the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in “God’s Grandeur.” He traces the beauty of the world as God created it, followed by its near destruction by man’s greed and materialism, but ending in sure hope through the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, the One who renews the face of the earth.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast
and with ah! bright wings.

Trinity 1

The Unending Gift

I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Why did Christ consider his absence so important? Couldn’t Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, joined from all eternity with the Father, co-exist on this earth, even with us?

Abba, Father!
Though he was leaving, Jesus did assure us that he would not leave us orphans.

Ah, that word! I understand “orphan” very well, having lost my father before the age when I might have remembered him. Richard Rohr, in an interview, referred to the prevalence of “father hunger” among men doing time in prisons. The apostle Philip asked Jesus, “Just show us the Father; that will be enough.” Even though Philip had lived with Jesus for all that time, he didn’t realize that he was already seeing the Father in the Person of his Teacher who always lived in the presence of his Father:

The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him. (John 8:29)

Reaching for the Eternal
One possible explanation for Christ insisting on the need for his absence  is that we must learn to stretch our spiritual capacity by reaching for the very soul of God, almost on our own. Jesus would physically leave but not abandon us, as he 
then lavished the Holy Spirit upon us.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” says the old proverb. This statement might be true in Harlequin romances, but not in real life. Absence makes the heart hurt. And well Jesus knew this, and emphasized how much we need to reach out to the Holy Spirit, detaching ourselves little by little from all that is not Spirit, thus preparing to become true children of the heavenly Father.

Our vision, like Philip’s needs to extend beyond the physical, beyond the absence, beyond that empty space that we think is nothingness, reaching ultimately to that world beyond, into the “kingdom that is not of this world.”

Sometimes referred to as the “forgotten” person of the Trinity, we come to realize the importance of the Spirit in how Jesus refers to Him, especially in the Gospel of John. Here Jesus names the Spirit Comforter, Advocate, Paraclete. The Spirit is the One who will stand by us always, to enlighten and strengthen  us, to appeal to the Father on our behalf, and to speak for us in our clumsy efforts at prayer (see Romans 8:14-17).

The Unending Gift
St. Paul tells the Ephesians that we have been “sealed with the promised holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s possession.”  (Eph. 1:13b-14a) “Sealed”: fixed, glued to the Spirit, 
never to be separated from God (despite Christ’s apparent absence). We have been given the Spirit and with this, an everlasting legacy as God’s children, adopted through our brotherhood with Christ.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:14-17)

Therefore, from this season on, we do not need to sing the hymn “Come, Holy Ghost.” The Holy Spirit is already overflowing within us. All we have to do is to recognize and accept the Spirit of Christ and the Father, so that we may receive with joy the gift of our unending adoption into the Trinity. 

We don’t need to understand the Trinity. We only need to bask in it.

Trinity 1

When loss is gain . . .

This week we will be remembering the events surrounding the arrest and execution of Christ. We need to supplement this troubling narration with St. John’s chapters 14 through 17 where we hear Jesus repeating words of comfort and reassurance to his disciples.

They know that danger lies ahead for their Lord. When Jesus had set his sights for Jerusalem, Thomas urged his brothers: “Let us go to die with him.” And of course, though they went with him, they certainly did not stay with him after he was arrested.

Nonetheless, Jesus is the one to offer strength and encouragement to his disciples. He is fully aware of their sense of loneliness, of their fear of being stranded in a hostile world that they, unlike their Master, are as yet ill-equipped to handle.

They have had only three years to work on understanding the deep mysteries their teacher patiently tried to explain. What did he mean about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood”? What did he mean by saying that he existed before Abraham, and by describing himself in virtually blasphemous terms: I AM, and calling God his Father? No wonder he knew he would not be allowed to live much longer and teach such wild ideas.

Now, as they all wait in dread for the inevitable reality, they can’t keep their wits about them. The three leaders, Peter, James and John, can’t even stay awake at a time when their senses ought to be at their keenest. Peter: no rock there. Only bravado.

The words of Christ in those chapters of John are deeply personal as nowhere else in the Gospels. What is more, he emphasizes – of all things – the positive aspect of his final disgrace. Jesus speaks openly about his death and tries to console his friends by assuring them that he will, in a “little while,”  come for them and take them to the home he will prepare for them with the Father.

He tells them how necessary this separation is and that he will not leave them orphans. As the evening progresses, Jesus’ words become more explicit and enigmatic at the same time. “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.” Advocate? Another new idea for them with no time to explore its meaning.

Jesus tells us of the positive value of his sacrifice, since it will result in the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the disciples will experience a deep sense of loss only to be brought to unity and the fullness of the Resurrection.

The letter to the Philippians (2:7), read on Palm Sunday, gives us a clue to discovering the paradoxical value of Jesus’ spiritual poverty: He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The loss of dignity along with loss of life left Jesus as the lowest of the low, the form of a slave. A slave owns nothing, not even his own life. If and when we might be called to undergo a radical emptying, it will be to make space for the Holy Spirit, for the Trinity, to live within us more fully. This Jesus models for us by submitting freely to his execution – an extreme to which very few (if any) of us will be subjected.

So we learn that separation or loss is the prelude to union. This union can occur – partially, at least – BEFORE we die. This holy and transformative togetherness can begin now, while we’re still on this planet, if only we commit to loving others as Christ loved us.

Yes, separation, loss or detachment is necessary. Some heroic saints, like Francis or Thérèse, take the initiative in this emptying. But it is not less valuable when we patiently accept loss. Certainly, we’re given plenty of opportunities to experience it: in the death or distance of loved ones or, unfortunately, separation through misunderstandings and grudges. It occurs with the loss of precious things: our health, needing to leave a beloved home, school or church. Even in these common experiences, the Holy Spirit stands ready to wean us ever more from the material we cling to, preparing us for a fuller spiritual life: our divinization, our transformation into other Christs, re-incarnations, so to speak, into what Christ was for others on this earth.

Don’t cling to me, ” Jesus will tell Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. We cannot develop the necessary strength for the ultimate Communion, without collaborating with the Holy Spirit as we work our way out of our human cocoon. We are assured of success through Jesus’ prayer:

I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
. . . that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me,

that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:20-21;22b-24)

No, separation is not total, nor is death the end; not for Christ and not for us. Through the love and sacrifice of Christ, we are graced to begin our new union with God — here.

Dali Cross
Dali: The Christ of St. John of the Cross