As the Father has sent me, so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
The sending of the Spirit upon the Apostles, which we celebrate today on the Solemnity of Pentecost, actually begins a bit earlier on the Sunday of the Resurrection. The Gospel which is read on Pentecost is always the same, with one alternative in the C Cycle, and it gives us the account of Jesus sending the Holy Spirit upon the apostles on that first evening of the new world created by his resurrection. The conclusion of this Gospel recalls the first sending of the Spirit upon the apostles to give them the power to forgive sins or retain them, a judgment that can be seen to prefigure and anticipate the final judgment of Christ on sin.
It is clear then that the Gift of the Spirit is what enables the Church to continue the mission of Jesus Christ in this world as His living instrument, and in this sense the Church is Christ who continues His mission in this world through His members. The Church can act for Christ, and in Christ, only because it receives the spirit of Christ. Jesus stated that truth quite simply, “without Me, you can do nothing.”
Now the mission of the Spirit, who indwells the Church and likewise indwells each of the faithful as the living members of the mystical Christ, can be summarized rather simply from a reading of the Scriptures. First, the Spirit is sent “to sanctify” the Church and its members, and this begins with Baptism and the forgiveness of sin and the raising of the baptized to a new
Life in Christ. Secondly, the Spirit is also sent “to teach” the Church all Christ’s saving truth, and this is promised by Christ himself, who refers to this divine Gift as “the Spirit of truth,” in St. John’s gospel, and adds this, “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.” [Jn. 14:26] Thirdly, the Spirit is sent to guide and to “to unify” the Church, that is, to make the members of the Church one in union with Christ and one with each other, in Christ.
Now all of the Spirit’s mission is accomplished in what we can call an “incarnational” way, that is, as an extension of the mystery of the Incarnation in which God became man, and, as a true man worked our redemption by his human words and deeds. An error of many Christians down through the ages is actually to deny or at least ignore this incarnational mode of the actions of the Holy Spirit. In a sense, these Christians desire only the “pure” action of the Holy Spirit, operating directly on the human heart in an invisible, spiritual way without any connection with or assistance from a visible, mediating body, that is, without the visible Church and her sacraments. Such a dis-incarnate spirituality is based upon a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between God and man, between Spirit and matter, and between supernatural life and ordinary human life.
At the core of Christian belief is the truth that God chose to save mankind by becoming a man Himself and by using the visible and tangible dimensions of man’s existence to communicate to man the invisible gifts of God. Thus, God chose to save us in no other way than by uniting us with the humanity and divinity of Christ, to make us one “body” with Christ who remains forever God in the flesh. In saving men, moreover, God would repair not only the damage done to man’s individual soul but also the damage down to his body, and he would not only do this for individuals as individuals but he would likewise repair the damage done to the human race as a race. Thus God saves us precisely while restoring and perfecting the lost unity of the human race which has been compromised and nearly destroyed by sin. The only means for repairing this lost unity, so critical for peace and mercy, is the love of the Holy Spirit, and this love is deliberately communicated in and through things familiar to humans.
So, the Spirit communicates sanctity not only, nor primarily, via the interior workings of our souls, but mot wonderfully by means of the instruments that Christ himself established in the holy Sacraments. St. Thomas Aquinas said that receiving invisible, supernatural gifts through visible realities is not only in accord with human nature, as a unity of body and soul, but it is likewise necessary in order to humble us sinners by having us receive the highest spiritual and invisible endowments or gifts through the lowly, visible and material signs that we call Sacraments. Man who has despoiled himself, in the natural world, by his sins and who destroys the bonds of love which alone can unify persons, must humble himself before nature itself, and receive through natural things supernatural and invisible gifts that sanctify the complete human person, body and soul.
In the same way and for the same purposes, including our humbling, the Spirit communicates truth to men in an incarnational mode, that is, through the teaching instrument of the visible Church, that enables us all, in the final analysis, to love God and our neighbors and thus establish deep bonds of unity. It is not without great significance that Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of Truth.” Man cannot truly love God or his neighbor without the possession of truth, the truth about God, and the truth about man. These truths are expressed in a special way in the lowly 10 Commandments, and that is why Jesus says that we do not love him, if we do not keep his commandments. The Spirit enables us to know the will of God, in the first instance, through the Commandments, and if one does not obey these Commandments, it is really self deception to think that the Spirit will communicate the deeper truths. As St. Gregory of Nyssa taught: Among these [gifts] was included the greatest gift of all, which was that they were no longer to be divided in their judgment of what was right and good, for they were all to be united to the one supreme Good. Obeying the commandments unites us. Receiving the Spirit’s teaching through the Church humbles us.
Any notion of of “pure spiritualism” which leaves the Commandments and the Sacraments behind is a false Christian spirituality and a plague in any age.
St. John, in his three Letters, repeats again and again that we must love God by keeping His Commandments. That is the foundation which leads to much higher gifts of truths and love of God and neighbor. One cannot consider obedience to the Commandments as secondary or dispensable. Like the Sacraments, they are the foundation of a love based on truth and humility. This is what St. John clearly teaches us when he says in his Second Letter, “This love is based on the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever. In truth and love, then, we shall have grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son.”
Because the Holy Spirit is both Love and the Spirit of Truth, we now have access to the true love of God. Thus, any true renewal grounded in the Spirit has to begin from this principle and from an incarnational view of the means of salvation. Otherwise, it’s all just emotion and fruitless. As St. Basil once wrote: The power of the Spirit fills the whole universe, but he gives Himself only to those who are worthy, acting in each according to the measure of his faith. The measure of our faith is inseparable from our humility and our obedience. And so we pray, Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of thy faithful, and enkindle is us the fire of thy divine love. … Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.