Slide 15 Slide 2 Foto di Filippo Maria Gianfelice

“GOD SENT INTO OUR HEARTS THE SPIRIT OF HIS SON” - Second Meditation for Advent 2021

Friday December 10th, 2021

In 1882, the archaeologist William M. Ramsay discovered an ancient Greek inscription at Hieropolis in Phrygia. The artifact was donated by Sultan Abdul Hamid to Pope Leo XIII in 1892, on the occasion of his jubilee. From the Lateran Museum, it later passed to the Pius-Christian Museum.
The epitaph – described by historians as “the queen of Christian inscriptions” – contains the spiritual testament of a bishop named Abercius. In it, the author summarizes his entire experience of the Christian faith. He does so in the language imposed at that time by the “discipline of the arcane”, that is, using metaphors and expressions, of which only Christians could understand the meaning, without exposing themselves and others to derision and persecution. The most interesting part of it for our purposes is the following:
I, Albercius by name, a disciple of the holy shepherd who feeds flocks of sheep both on the mountains and in the plains, [the shepherd] who has large eyes that see everywhere… He taught me that the book is worthy of belief. He sent me to Rome to contemplate majesty, and to see a queen robed in gold, wearing golden sandals. There I saw people bearing a glowing mark. I also visited the land of Syria and all its cities, and beyond the Euphrates, Nisibis. Everywhere I found brothers…, Paul was with me, and Faith led me forward and, as my food, provided a very large fish that a chaste Virgin had conceived and which she (Faith) gives to her faithful friends every day to eat, providing excellent wine together with the bread.
The large-eyed shepherd is Jesus; the book is the Bible; the queen in golden robes (an allusion to Psalm 45:9) is the Church; the glowing mark is Baptism; Paul is a clear reference to the apostle; the fish, as in many ancient mosaics, indicates Christ; the chaste Virgin is Mary; the bread and wine is the Eucharist. In Abercius’ eyes, Rome is not so much the capital of the empire (which at that time was at the height of its power), but the “palace” of another kingdom, the spiritual center of the Church.
What is so striking in this account is the freshness, enthusiasm, and amazement with which Abercius looks at the new world that faith has opened up before him. For him, this is not something to be taken for granted! For the world and history, it is something entirely novel, which is precisely why I wanted to mention it. That is the feeling that we contemporary Christians most need to rediscover. Once again, it is a question of looking at the stained glass windows of the cathedral from the inside, rather than from the streetside.
After more than 40 years of traveling around the world preaching, I can very much relate to the account given by Abercius, without needing to resort to veiled language. Everywhere, I, too, in my own small way, have encountered this new people described in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium as the messianic people who “have as their head Christ, who possess the dignity and the freedom of the children of God, whose law is the new commandment to love and whose end is the kingdom of God” (see LG, 9).

The same Council reminds us that the Church is made up of saints and sinners; indeed, she herself – as a concrete, historical reality – is holy and sinful, a “chaste harlot” as some Fathers called her, and those two aspects – sin and sanctity – are present in every single member, not just between one category of Christians and the other. It is right, then, that we are saddened by and weep over the sins of the Church, but it is also right and necessary to rejoice in her holiness and beauty. Once more we must choose this second aspect which, in our day and age, is perhaps more difficult and often forgotten.

The proof that we are God’s children

Let us return to our commentary on the text from Galatians:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. The proof that you are children is that God has sent into your hearts his Son’s Spirit which cries out: “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a child; and if a child, then also an heir, by God’s grace.

During our last meditation, we reflected on the first part of the text, our being children of God. Now let us reflect on the second part, namely, the role that the Holy Spirit plays in all this. We need to call to mind the almost twin passage from Romans 8:15-16:

You did not receive a spirit of bondage to fear; no, you received a Spirit that makes you adopted children, that empowers you to cry out, “Abba! Father!” The same Spirit, united with our spirit, bears witness that we are children of God.
Last time I spoke of the important role that God’s Word plays in savoring the delight of knowing that we are children of God and in experiencing God as a good father. Now Saint Paul tells us that there is yet another way, without which even the Word of God is insufficient, – the Holy Spirit!
St. Bonaventure ends his treatise, Journey of the Mind to God, with an allusive and mysterious phrase. He wrote: “No one knows this very secret mystical wisdom except the person who receives it; no one receives it except the one who desires it; no one desires it except the one who is inwardly set on fire by the Holy Spirit whom Christ sent to earth.” In other words, we might want to have a living knowledge of being God’s children and to experience it, but actually having all this is solely the work of the Holy Spirit.
What does it mean when we say that the Spirit “bears witness” to the fact that we are children of God? Clearly, it is not like an external, legal document that proves human adoption or a baptismal certificate. If the Spirit is “the proof” that we are children of God, if he “bears witness” to our spirit, it cannot be something that takes place “somewhere” without our being aware of it or without some confirmation.
Unfortunately, that is how we have come to think of it. It is true that in Baptism we became children of God, members of Christ and God’s love was poured into our hearts…, we believe this by faith, even if nothing moves within us. Believed in the mind, but not lived in the heart. How can we change this situation? The Apostle gave us the answer: the Holy Spirit! Not just the Holy Spirit we once received in Baptism, but the Holy Spirit that we must ask for and receive over and over again. The Spirit “bears witness” that we are children of God, meaning he bears witness right here and now, not once and for all at the moment of Baptism.
Let us attempt to understand how the Holy Spirit works this miracle of opening our eyes to the reality we bear within. I discovered the best description of how the Holy Spirit brings this about in the believer in a discourse on Pentecost by Luther. (Let us follow, with him, the Pauline criterion for “examining everything, retaining what is good.”) (1 Thess 5,21).
As long as people live under the regime of sin, under the law, God seems to be a severe supervisor who opposes all their earthly desires with divine peremptory ones: “You must…; you must not….” You must not desire another’s possessions or woman… This being the case, people accumulate in the depths of their hearts a muted animosity towards God who seems to be opposed to their every happiness, to the point that, if it were up to them, they would be just as happy if God did not exist.
If this all seems like an exaggeration, perhaps in reference only to “great” sinners which does not touch us personally, let us look inside ourselves and see what rises out of the dark depths of our hearts as we stand before God’s will and a difficult obedience courses through our plans. During the retreats I preach, I usually propose to the participants that they take a psychological test on their own to discover what idea is their prevailing image of God. I invite each person to ask: “During the recitation of the Our Father, what ideas, what feelings spontaneously, without reflecting on it come to mind when I get to the words, ‘Your will be done’”?

It is not farfetched to understand how, unconsciously, we connect the will of God with everything unpleasant, painful, everything that outs us to the test, that requires renunciation and sacrifice, in short, everything that can be seen as curbing our personal freedom and development. We essentially perceive God as being opposed to all festivity, delight, and enjoyment. If at that moment, we could look at ourselves as if in a mirror, we would see ourselves as people with heads bowed in resignation, muttering through clenched teeth: “If there’s nothing else I can do about it…ok, your will be done.”

Let’s take a look at what the Holy Spirit does to heal us of this terrible distortion that we inherited from Adam. When the Spirit comes to us, – in Baptism and then in all the other means of sanctification, – he begins by showing us a different face of God, the face revealed to us by Jesus in the Gospel. He has us discover God as an ally of our joy, as the one who, for our sake “did not spare his own Son” (Rom 8:32).

Little by little, the feeling a child experiences blossoms in us which spontaneously translates into the cry: Abbà, Father! With Job at the end of his story we are ready to exclaim, “By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you.” (Jb 42,5). A child has replaced the slave, love has replaced fear. The person ceases to be antagonistic toward God and becomes God’s ally. The covenant with God is no longer just a religious system into which one is born, but a discovery, a choice, a source of unshakable security. “If God is with us, on our side, who can be against us” (see Rom 8:31)?

The prayer of children

Prayer is the privileged place where the Holy Spirit works always anew the miracle of making us feel like God’s children. The Spirit does not give prayer as a law, but as a grace. Prayer does not come to us primarily through external, analytical learning; it comes to us by infusion, as a gift. What comes to us is the very source of prayer, namely that “God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son who cries out: Abbà, Father!” (Gal 4:6).

The cry of the believer, Abbà!, in itself shows that the one who is praying in us, through the Spirit, is Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God. Since the Holy Spirit is not begotten of God but rather proceeds from the Father, the Spirit could not turn to God and cry out Abba, Father. But as the Spirit of the only-begotten Son, the Spirit can prolong the prayer of the head in the members.

Therefore, it is the Holy Spirit who imbues our hearts with the feeling of divine adoption as children, the one who makes us experience (and not only know!) that we are children of God. At times, this radical activity of the Spirit takes place suddenly and intensely in a person’s life, and then it can be contemplated in all its splendor. It might occur during a retreat, or when a person is well-disposed to receive a sacrament, or while listening to the Word of God with an open heart, or while praying for the outpouring of the Spirit (the so-called “baptism in the Spirit”). The soul is inundated with a new light in which God is revealed to the person in a new way, as Father. The person experiences what it really means to say God is Father; their heart becomes tender and the person has the sensation of being born again by this experience. He or she experiences deep inner confidence and a never-before-felt sense of God’s condescension.

At other times, however, this revelation of the Father is accompanied by such a sense of God’s majesty and transcendence that the person feels overwhelmed and is silent. (I am not describing my own experiences, but those of the saints!). One begins to understand why some saints could start to pray the Our Father, and even after hours had passed, were still glued to those opening words. The confessor and biographer of St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Raymond of Capua, wrote that “it was difficult to finish an “Our Father” without her already being in ecstasy.”

This dramatic way of knowing the Father usually does not last long, not even in the saints. The time soon returns when the believer says Abbà! without feeling anything and continues to repeat it simply on the word of Jesus. That is when it is important to remember that the less that utterance delights the person who prays it, the more it delights the Father who hears it because it is then that is it comes out of pure faith and abandonment.

It is then that we are like that famous musician (I’m speaking of Beethoven) who, having lost his hearing, continued to compose and perform splendid symphonies to the delight of his audiences without being able to savor a single note himself. At one point, after listening to one of his works (the celebrated Ninth Symphony), the audience exploded into applause and someone had to tug on the hem of Beethoven’s robe to get him to notice and thank them. His loss of hearing, rather than muting his music, made it all the purer. The same is true for dryness in our prayer if we persevere in it.
When we talk about the exclamation, “Abbà, Father!”, we usually think in terms of self-reference, that is, what it means to us who pronounce it. We hardly ever think about what it means to the One who hears it, to what it produces in God. No one reflects on the joy it brings God to be called “Dad”. But anyone who is a father knows how it feels to hear himself being called in that unmistakable tone of voice of his own boy or girl. It’s like becoming a father again each time because every time that exclamation is pronounced, it reminds you and makes you realize who you are. It calls forth into existence what lies at the core of your being.

Jesus knew this and so he often called God Abbà! and taught us to do likewise. We give God a simple and unique joy by calling him “Dad”: the joy of paternity. At the sound of these words, God’s heart “is touched” and his compassion grows “warm and tender” (see Hos 11:8). And we can do all this even when we do not “feel” anything.

It is precisely at this time of seeming distance from God and dryness that we discover the great importance of the Holy Spirit for our life of prayer. Unseen and unheard by us, the Spirit “comes to our rescue in our weakness,” filling our words and sighs with desire for God, humility, and love, “and the One who searches hearts knows what the Spirit desires” (see Rom 8:26-27). The Spirit, then, becomes the power behind our “weak” prayer, light for our “dimmed” prayer; in a word, the very soul of our prayer. In the words of the Pentecost Sequence, the Spirit “irrigates what is parched.”

All this happens by faith. It suffices for me to say or think: “Father, you have given me the Spirit of Jesus your Son. Thereby making me “one spirit with him” (1 Cor 6:17) I am praying this psalm or celebrating this holy Mass, or simply standing in silence here in your presence. I want to give you that glory, that joy, that Jesus would give you if he were praying to you again here on earth.”

What the Spirit is saying to the Church

Before concluding, I would like to mention a pastoral application of this reflection on the role of the Holy Spirit. On other occasions, I quoted something that the Orthodox Metropolitan, Ignatius IV of Latakia, said at the solemn ecumenical gathering in 1968. It bears repeating here:
“Without the Holy Spirit:
God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
the Gospel is a dead letter,
the Church is simply an organization,
Authority is a matter of domination,
Mission a matter of propaganda,
Liturgy is no more than an evocation,
Christian living a slave morality.

But with the Holy Spirit:
The cosmos is resurrected and groans with the birth-pangs of the Kingdom,
humans struggle against the flesh,
the risen Christ is there,
the Gospel is the power of life,
the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The liturgy is both memorial and anticipation,
Human action is deified.”

We must base everything on the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to recite one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be at the start of our pastoral meetings and then move quickly on to the agenda. When circumstances allow, we need to spend some time disclosing ourselves to the Holy Spirit, to give the Spirit time to manifest himself, to synchronize ourselves with him.
Without this prep work, all of our resolutions and documents remain just an accumulation of words. Think of the sacrifice of Elijah on Carmel. Elijah gathered wood and soaked it several times. He did everything he could. Then he prayed to the Lord to send down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. Without that fire from on high, everything else would have remained just dampened wood (see 1 Kg 18:20ff).
These are things that are beginning to take place in the Church without a lot of commotion. This year I received a letter from a pastor in a French archdiocese. He wrote: “Almost three years ago, our archbishop launched all of us into a missionary adventure and established a fraternity of diocesan missionaries. We decided to start a course in preparation for baptism in the Spirit. It was a beautiful experience with 300 Christians from all over the archdiocese, together with the archbishop. A short time later, all 28 Poor Clares of a nearby convent asked to have the same experience.”
Immediate and spectacular results are not to be expected. It’s not a fire dance like that of the priests of Baal on Carmel. The “when” and “how” are known only to God. Let us remember what Christ told his apostles: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8). The important thing is that we ask for and receive strength from on high; the rest is up to God.
This is especially true as the Church embarks on the synodal adventure. It suffices to re-read and reflect on the words already spoken by the Holy Father in his homily opening the Synodal Path last October 10th. He urged us to take “time to devote to prayer and to adoration, and to hearing what the Spirit wants to say to the Church.”
I wonder if it would be possible, at least during the plenary gatherings of each local or universal circumscription, to designate a spiritual animator who would organize times of prayer and listening to the Word. As it says in the Book of Revelation: “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rv 19:10). The spirit of prophecy preferably is manifested in the context of community prayer.
We have a wonderful example of this occurring during the first crisis that the Church had to face in its mission of proclaiming the Gospel. Peter and John had been arrested and put in prison for having “proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” They were freed by the Sanhedrin with the warning “in no way are you to speak about or teach in the name of Jesus.” The apostles find themselves facing a situation that has been repeated many times in the course of history: either to remain silent and thus disregard the command of Jesus or to speak out at the risk of a brutal reaction on the part of the authorities which could spell the end of everything.
What did the apostles do? They gathered the community together. It prayed. Someone shared a verse from the Psalm: “earthly rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his Anointed One” (Ps 2:2). Someone else made the connection with the agreement between Herod and Pontius Pilate regarding Jesus. Then we read: “When they had finished the prayer, the place where they were gathered shook and all were filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaimed the word of God with boldness (parresia )” (see Acts 4:1-31). Paul reminds us that this was not an isolated practice in the Church. He wrote to the Corinthians: “When you gather together, one of you has a psalm, another a word of instruction: one has a revelation, one has the gift of tongues, another the gift of interpreting the tongues” (1 Cor 14:26).
The ideal with every synodal resolution would be to be able to repeat to today’s Church – at least ideally – the same words used at the Church’s first council: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28). The Holy Spirit is the only one who opens new paths, without ever denying the former ones. Rather than doing new things, the Spirit renews things! That is, the Spirit does not create new doctrines and new institutions, but renews and breathes new life into those instituted by Jesus. Without the Spirit, we would always lag behind history. As the Holy Father said in that same homily, “It means discovering with amazement that the Holy Spirit always surprises us, to suggest fresh paths and new ways of speaking.” I would add, he is a master of the updating aggiornamento that St. John XXIII set as the goal of the Council. The Council had to bring about a new Pentecost, now the new Pentecost must translate the Council into reality!
The Latin Church possesses a treasure for this purpose: the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Ever since its composition in the ninth century, this has resonated unceasingly in Christianity, like a prolonged epiclesis over all creation and the Church. Beginning with the early years of the second millennium, every new year, every century, every conclave, every ecumenical council, every synod, every priestly or episcopal ordination, every important meeting in the life of the Church opened with the chanting of this hymn. It took on all the faith, devotion, and ardent desire of the Spirit of the generations who sang it before us. And now, when it is sung, even by the most modest choir of the faithful, God hears it as the immense “orchestration” which is the communion of saints.

Venerable Fathers, brothers, and sisters, I ask you kindly to stand and sing it with me, asking for a new outpouring of the Spirit on us and the entire Church…

Translated by Br. Patrick McSherry, ofmcap

1.In Enchiridion Fontium Historiæ Ecclesiasticæ Antiquæ, Herder 1965, pp. 92-94.
2.See H.U. von Balthasar, “Casta meretrix”, in Sponsa Christi, Morcelliana, Brescia, 1969.
3.Bonaventure, Journey of the Mind to God 7,4.
4.See Luther, Sermon on Pentecost (WA, 12, p. 568f).
5.Raymond of Capua, Legenda maior, 113.
6.Metropolitan Ignatius of Latakia, in The Uppsala Report, Geneva 1969, p. 298.