We Believe in the Life-giving Spirit
By the Rev. Mike Marsh
For most of us, I suspect, there are moments when the existential questions of life can no longer be answered, ignored, or denied by focusing on our careers, jobs, marriages, families, acquisitions, or accomplishments. Who am I? What is my purpose? What have I really accomplished? How will I be remembered? Will I even be remembered? Where is all this going and what’s it about?
Some will simply chalk it up to a mid-life crisis or the frustrations and difficulties of life. Others will try to reinvent themselves. In those moments we face our own mortality, the passing of time, and the limitations of this world. That we are finite, biological creatures with a beginning and an end becomes more clear. These are “spiritual” moments par excellence. At the heart of these moments are our longing and yearning for life, not just life as we know it, more of the same, but a life we can scarcely imagine, let alone obtain for ourselves.
Who is the one that will give us that life? What does that life look like? Those questions are answered by the third and final part of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
The life we seek but can never obtain for ourselves comes from the Spirit. Jesus said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63). Our created, biological identity and existence cannot offer the fullness of life for which we long. That does not mean the created stands in opposition to the spiritual. It means, rather, that we can live as creatures of the Creator but that our ultimate identity and mode of existence are not limited and bound by our created nature. We are given a new mode of existence that comes not from our own possibilities but from God’s will and choice to love, to give life. There is more to us than our biological finitude. That is the scandal of being human, and it happens “by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
“By the power of the Holy Spirit” God is enfleshed and embodied from the Virgin Mary and made man, Jesus. In the same way, the power of the Holy Spirit descends upon humanity, you and me, indeed all of creation, to accomplish a renewal of life. This renewal of life is neither “an ethical ‘improvement’ of man, or his legal ‘restoration’” but the constitution of life itself (Christos Yannaras, Elements of Faith, p. 125). The Spirit fulfills in us our deepest and most profound desire for life. We do not simply have a life, we become life.
It is for these reasons that the Creed declares the Spirit to be not just a giver of life but “the giver of life” (emphasis added). There is only one who gives life. That one, the Spirit, is “the Lord.” This is the same title given to Jesus Christ and is synonymous in the Hebrew tradition for “Yahweh,” God. Further, we affirm that this is not just any spirit but that the Spirit is “Holy” and to be “worshiped and glorified” in the same way and to the same degree as the Father and the Son. All this is the Church’s way of declaring that the Holy Spirit is God. The Spirit is as fully divine as are the Father and the Son.
As the life giver, the Spirit both originates and consummates life, not as events completed in the past or to be completed in the future but by the ongoing and continuous giving of life. Life is never abstract. It is personal and embodied, though not necessarily material or tangible. That is the point of the creedal statements about the prophets, the Church, baptism and the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead and, the life of the world to come. Each of those is a manifestation of embodied life, the presence and power of the life giving Spirit, and not simply a declaration.
There are prophets in every age. They are the ones through whom the Spirit “has spoken.” Their words come from insight more than foresight. They speak less about what will be and more about what can be, right here, right now. Instead of predicting the future they call us to see and claim the new life God is offering in our time and place. They call us to an ecclesial rather than a purely biological existence.
“Ecclesia,” from the Greek verb meaning “to call out,” is commonly translated to mean “church.” It is the gathering or assembling of those who have a common calling. They are united not by common ideas, interests, or causes but by the Spirit’s call to a common life and existence. The Church is not just an institution or organization. It is constituted by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit takes a body of individual Christians and transforms them into the Body of Christ, the Church. In that regard, we “live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us” (Eucharistic Prayer D, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 374).
Within the Church, the ecclesia, the Spirit effects baptism and the forgiveness of sins. This is the story of creation, life coming into existence. We tell this story in every baptismal liturgy:
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. (Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 306).
Our existence, identity, and value are no longer determined by what we do, by what we have, or from whom we were born. Through baptism and the forgiveness of sins we die to our biological and fleshly existence. This does not mean we are without life. Rather, we are freed to receive a new life. We are freed from a purely biological existence and identity and now share in a new identity and way of being, the resurrected life of Christ. In this regard, “every baptized person becomes ‘Christ’” (John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion, p. 58n.54).
Despite our ecclesial existence we still experience biological birth and death just like Jesus did. They are not, however, our final reality or identity. Ecclesial existence for us is not about what we have become but about what we are becoming. We, therefore, look “for the life of the world to come.”
At the deepest level the life we seek and the life the Spirit gives are the same. The glory of God is found at the intersection of our seeking and the Spirit’s giving. “The glory of God,” said Irenaeus, a bishop of the second century, “is a human being fully alive” (Against Heresies, 4.20.7).
1. In what ways have you allowed your biological existence to give you ultimate meaning and value? What happens when another or life circumstances take away that meaning and value? Who are you then? What becomes of your life?
2. Have you ever tried to reinvent yourself? How did that work for you? How many times can we reinvent ourselves?
3. This part of the Creed suggests that life is dynamic, not static. In some sense letting go is at the core of all authentic spirituality. Are you willing to let go of the life you have to receive a new life? To what do you cling? What makes it hard to let go?
4. Consider this third part of the Creed in light of what G.K. Chesterton wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World, p. 48)
5. Imagine what the Church, the world, and life would look like if we truly lived an ecclesial existence.