Dry Bones: The Unpneumatic Church

The last group of posts has been on the general topic of “Spiritual Formation and Evangelism.” It is quite appropriate to conclude at the time of Pentecost, since the sending of the Holy Spirit is pivotal to the topic.

Unfortunately, the discussion starts with lamenting the disrespect shown the Paraclete, not in some secular fortress but in his Church. The Church owes both its birth and ongoing existence to the Holy Spirit. The famous historian Arnold Toynbee quotes “a high prelate” as commenting that the presence and support of the Spirit is the only possible explanation for the undiminished continuation of the Church over millennia. Empires have come and gone. The Church herself, according to the prelate, has suffered grievously from incompetent and corrupt leadership that would have long ago sunk any other organization. But the Church lives, even while she ignores the reason.

It is the heresy of the Holy Binity. We don’t do well relating to a God in three persons. Even “Binity” may be too much. It’s “God and Jesus” for a lot of folks, mono-and-a-half theists. The official creeds and formulas are still there.  But the Spirit himself receives scant notice.

What do i cite as evidence?                                                                                               
When is the last time you prayed or heard a prayer to the Holy Spirit? Even the Pentecost prayers are not addressed to him. Even people who routinely pray to a host of saints and to the Theotokos rarely if ever pray to the Holy Spirit.

There are three great festivals in Christianity, corresponding to the three great events in the coming of Christianity. Two are festivals of Christ, celebrated with great gusto and attention. The third is the equally great festival of the Holy Spirit. It passes annually totally unnoticed by society and makes barely a little blip on the Church’s radar.

It is axiomatic that when a significant piece of teaching is ignored, a heresy often forms in response. Thus, the neglect of the various teachings in the third article of the Creed, which is the Spirit’s section, resulted in the Pentecostal movement as a counter-balance. Unfortunately, these counter-movements do not restore orthodoxy, but rather over-balance in other directions. And even the “Holy Ghost filled” people rarely pray to the Holy Spirit, nor do they normally celebrate Pentecost at all.

Some folks in medieval Spain, in an attempt to be helpful in strengthening the doctrine of Incarnation against the Arians, added a clause to the Creed claiming the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, in opposition to the Fathers and the New Testament, both of which explain the Spirit proceeding only from the Father. Re-working the theological concepts of the ecumenical creeds (as opposed to simply clarifying language as it evolves) has a predictably lamentable outcome, and this endeavor was no exception. It is perhaps difficult to know which was cause and which effect, but the result was the virtual disappearance of any other than a pro-forma mention of the Spirit in the western Middle Ages.

The epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit into the Eucharistic gifts and us, central to the Eucharistic consecration, disappeared from the Roman Canon, leaving Christ’s words of institution as the sole agent of God’s eucharistic action. While the epiclesis has gradually crept back into many western liturgies in more recent times, it seldom recovers its central role of ancient times (and of eastern liturgies, which kept the epiclesis and rejected the “filioque” all along).

Yet for all that and more, the Church continues, as Toynbee’s prelate observes, led by the presence of the Spirit, whether acknowledged or not. Can these bones live? (see Ezekiel 37). The answer is affirmative. It is easy to rattle church people by changes (especially, for some reason, those going back to ancient practice, in contrast to those which are trendy), so perhaps the rattling Ezekiel hears as the bones begin to move has a modern analogy . But come alive they can, as God acts. And the ultimate act, then as now, is to infuse the body with the πνευμα=pneuma=Spirit=breath.

Evangelism, like love, begins with the self. Jesus in his wisdom notes this. In the second great commandment, we are to love others as we love ourselves. Not instead of ourselves, but in harmony with ourselves. Evangelism also must begin with the renovation of self, the application of the Gospel’s good news and joy to me, and then, irresistibly, to others. In this, you will meet the Holy Spirit, the God who is sent to be with you. He descended to you in baptism and chrismation. He meets you at Eucharist, and dwells with you in the Body. In a time of Christian institutional and cultural decline, know that the Spirit is unaffected. As your spiritual formation grows in the nourishing love of the Spirit, you will thrive, not decline. And you and I, the fleshed out Body of Christ, are what is crucial here, not the institution. Who can do other than rejoice in a God who dwells with us in love?

The great hymn of Bishop Nicholai Grundtvig says it well (quoting excerpts);

“Built on the Rock, the Church doth stand, even when steeples are falling; Crumbled have spires in every land, bells still are chiming and calling;……….  He whom heavens cannot contain, chose to abide on earth with men–Built in our bodies His temple

We are God’s house of living stones, builded for His habitation;He through baptismal grace us owns, heirs of His wondrous salvation; Were we but two His name to tell, yet He would deign with us to dwell, With all His grace and favor.”