By Corinne Winter
At times, many Christians have seemed to neglect the Holy Spirit in both prayer and teaching. At first glance, the Apostles’ Creed may seem to fit that pattern. We pray, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” and go right on to the church, the communion of saints, and so forth. Does the Spirit simply belong on a brief list of other doctrines? Hardly! Rather, to believe in the church, the communion of saints, forgiveness of sin, resurrection of the body and life everlasting is precisely to believe in the ongoing presence and power of the Holy Spirit among us.
In fact, the opening line of what we call the “third article” of the creed is not the first mention of the Spirit found in the creed. Go back to the second article, to the line at which we bow when praying the creed at Mass: “…His only begotten Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit” To believe in Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Son of God is also to believe in the work of the Spirit.
The New Testament letter to the Romans includes a verse to which I often return in prayer: “we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit makes intercession for us … (Rom. 8:26.)” The Holy Spirit is essential to the life of faith. Every movement toward God, every act of faith, hope and love, every gathering and work of the community of faith is the fruit of the Spirit within and among us.
It is because we believe that the Spirit is at work in the church that we remain faithful to her teachings. In every sacramental rite, we ask God to send the Spirit so that the effects of the sacrament may be realized, and as such, we recognize the sacraments as divine gifts. We believe that the Spirit anoints us at baptism to join us with Christ and his mission and leads us to discern our own calling to set out to contribute to the building of God’s reign on earth.
The Nicene version of the Creed includes more details of what we believe about the Spirit. As with other parts of the creed, additions were the work of church councils striving to rule out ideas considered a danger to the church. Specifically, bishops and theologians gathered in Constantinople in 381 affirmed the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against some who would identify the Spirit as a lesser god or a divine mediator not equal to the Father and the Son.
In an earlier reflection, we looked at the addition of the term homoousios, or consubstantial to define the Son as equal to the Father. The descriptions of the Spirit as divine are less philosophical. The Spirit is given the title “Lord,” which, in the context of the creed is a divine title. We assert as we pray the Nicene Creed that the Spirit does divine work: giving life, speaking through the prophets. The Spirit has a divine origin, not being created by God but proceeding from God, an origin that also distinguishes the Spirit from the Son, who is begotten. The Spirit, together with the Father and the Son is to be worshipped and glorified, tribute that belongs to God alone.
What difference does it make that we believe in the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity? It means we believe that God, who is utterly transcendent and beyond our reach and our comprehension, is utterly near. Sometimes we speak of God giving us grace, as though grace were a thing we could either use or set aside or even save up. Grace is actually the effect of the Holy Spirit at work within creation, drawing, urging all toward communion with God.
Can we still ignore the gifts and the urging of the Spirit? We can and we do. Both history and current events offer superabundant evidence. However, the Spirit remains. If we can find evidence of human behavior and institutions opposing the work of the Spirit, we can also find evidence of human cooperation with the Spirit. When we look for such evidence, we might be tempted to seek only the marvelous, the extraordinary. Something I often repeated to students is that God ordinarily works in ordinary ways. When a great deal of the news is discouraging, I try to think of the good people who are close to me, of their love and generosity. If I know so many good people, there must be many more. Of course, I can’t hide in my cozy little corner, but those thoughts help to sustain hope, a fruit of the Spirit that all of us need very badly.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)