“…send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered”
(Epiclesis, Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)
One of the crescendos of the Divine Liturgy is the calling down of the Holy Spirit. The outpouring of the Spirit descends as invisible fire consuming our sins, enlightening our minds and sanctifying our offering.
From a broader perspective, the descent of the Spirit is not limited to the celebrating clergy and the offering of bread and wine, which rest upon the altar. Nor is the Liturgy limited to the work of the people of God but is a divine-human endeavor. The Spirit descends upon the entire gathering of all con-celebrants, clergy and laity, transforming the gathering of Christians into the living body of Christ i.e. the Church.
As a hierarchical and counciliar reality, the community of believers makes known to itself and to the world the activity of God. As a divine-human act, the Liturgy provides the very venue from which the Church enters the world and the world enters the Church. The descent of the Spirit within the context of the Liturgy is the historical extension and continuation of Pentecost which ever renews and guides those in the Church to proclaim in different times and places the same Christ yesterday, today and forever (Heb.13:8). The Spirit guides and protects the Christian and the Christian community in its missionary enterprise. However, this is only possible when the Christian and the Christian community actively seek to possess the Holy Spirit.
The Church is hierarchical and counciliar. For this dynamic to forge an interpersonal dynamic between clergy and laity, there must be a personal and communal act of self-emptying based on serving Christ and one another. Regardless of personal and even corporate sin, the Liturgy always maintains its integrity. Yet historically, this fundamental reality of the Church has led to liturgical formalism that has spawned a confused attitude of intellectual laxity and spiritual indifference regarding the very nature of the Church as a worshipping community.
To say that the Orthodox Church has been imprisoned in a stifling liturgical and spiritual formalism is by no means an exaggeration. The question remains as to what is the root cause or causes of this persisting formalism. Major social and political changes have certainly contributed to liturgical and consequently theological petrifaction. But this is only part of the problem. Centuries of formalism have created a liturgical worldview – a liturgical perspective – in which prayer and theology are no longer needed in the context of worship. Hence, the old dictum “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief” (lex orandi lex est credendi) can hardly be taken at face value. For many Christians and Christian communities the rule of prayer has little, if anything, in common with the rule of belief honed and confirmed through the relationship between the Church and the Holy Spirit. When liturgical form becomes divorced from prayer and theology it invites alien concepts and emotions to fill the externals of communal worship. Personal and communal prayer no longer compliment each other except to affirm their mutual independence from the life of the Holy Spirit.
Without the personal and corporate acquisition of the Spirit, the Church as institution cannot discern and possess the mind of Christ (cf. 1Cor.1:10 and 2:16) and therefore is hindered from making present the work of Christ in and for the salvation of the world. Without the Spirit, the words of worship lose their true meaning and are deprived of the sweet melody of repentance and adoration. Without the Spirit, the Church is paralyzed, unable to exist, grow and act in accordance with the divine will. Through the Spirit we discover that only in God we personally and corporately “live and move and have our being.” (Acts17:27-28) Separated from the Spirit the words of the Church including those canonized by Scripture and Liturgy cease to be an expression of humanity’s desire to respond to the divine overture of love. Dialog is distorted either into a monolog or into conversations with “other people in our thoughts.” (St. Martyrius, 7thc)
The Holy Spirit is a gift. Like the incarnate Word and Son of God, the Spirit is given to the world for its life and salvation. At the same time, the Spirit is acquired. Before virtually every rule of prayer, the universality of the Spirit is acknowledged while at the same time we call upon the Spirit to “come and abide in us.” Christian life and Christian worship presuppose the taking up of ascetical life. For only when we personally and corporately empty ourselves of all that is alien to God, can the Spirit abide and remain with us and the Church.
Through the Spirit, the divine and prophetic word of God remains active in the world – “…no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Pt.1:21) The acquisition of the Holy Spirit is a liturgical act that drives the Church into the wilderness of the world so it may confront and overthrow the tyranny of the evil one. Emptied of the Spirit, the Church, as an institution bound to form, inevitably succumbs to the same temptations encountered by our Lord in the desert. Power, glory and material security become the pillars of a false Gospel revealing a false Christ. These temptations weigh down the Church and prevent it from offering every one and every thing back to God.
Our calling down of the Holy Spirit in the Divine Liturgy is an act of cosmic dimensions. For through the Spirit, who eternally proceeds from the Father, humanity and all of creation receives its proper and unique identity. We, who are con-celebrants, continuously discover that we “have put on a new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:24) Through the calling down of the Spirit, humanity and all of creation are incorporated into the life of the crucified and risen Christ “who is all and in all.” (Col.3:11)
Father Robert M. Arida