Being open to receiving the Father’s gifts is integral to Christianity

Father John A. Kiley

A statement of faith that passes through the lips of Roman Catholics and many other Christians Sunday after Sunday acknowledges the vital mission of the Holy Spirit in salvation history. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” This brief creedal formula confesses the Holy Spirit to be truly Divine. He is Lord and Life-giver. These words also admit the Spirit to be worthy of honor and praise equal to the other two Divine persons. The Holy Spirit’s revelatory role in making the mysteries of God fathomable to believers is likewise professed. But in the midst of these tributes to the Spirit of God are three English words “and the Son” (which are actually one Latin word: “filioque”). For reasons both political and doctrinal, this miniscule phrase has divided Eastern and Western Christianity officially for a thousand years and theologically for maybe fifteen hundred years.

The Nicene Creed originally professed that the Holy Spirit preceded from the Father to the Son, that is, the Father lavishly showered his love, his Spirit, on the Son. There can be no argument there. Upon further reflection Western theologians acknowledged that the Son in return equally lavished his love, his Spirit, back to the Father. And there’s the rub. The Western Church accepted that the Holy Spirit was the Son’s gift to the Father as well as the Father’s gift to the Son. The Western Church, the Roman Catholic Church, saw in God a mutual exchange, a reciprocal bond, a loving embrace, between the Father and the Son. This heavenly conversation, this Godly dialogue, this Divine bonding, actually is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the give-and-take love between the Father and the Son. To this day, the Eastern Christian Churches, the Orthodox Churches, do not accept the Spirit’s procession from the Son. In their mind, the Spirit is the Father’s exclusive gift.

What might seem a rather fine distinction to be debated by theologians in Rome and Constantinople actually does have practical ramifications for the everyday life of the Christian community. Through Baptism Christians become “other Christs”; Christians become “sons in the Son.” The believing Christian’s relationship with the Father is clearly founded on the Divine Son’s relationship with Father. Now if the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father to the Son and the Divine Son is understood simply to receive the Father’s love, to bask in the Father’s loving embrace so to speak, then the Christian life takes on a very contemplative, very reflective aspect. There is a certain passivity to the Christian life from this point of view.

A believer must indeed open heart, mind and soul to the Father to receive his Divine Spirit. Openness toward the Father’s gifts is integral to Christianity. But a Christ like compulsion to match the Father’s love with an active response is also fundamental to the Christian life. But the believer’s vigorous need to meet God’s love is greatly diminished if the Spirit’s procession “from the Son” is ignored. The Divine Son, along with all those believers who share the life of the Son, must not only receive the Spirit from the Father but must equally return the Spirit on the Father. The Christian, like Christ, is called not only to enjoy the Father’s love but to share, to promote, to spread the Father’s love. Christians are not simply called to be contemplatives; Christians are called to be missionaries as well. The give and take witnessed within the eternal life of the Father and the Son must be reflected in the common life of Christ’s Church as well.

When the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son, became the man Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit continued to proceed from him during his earthly sojourn just as effectively and as powerfully as the Spirit had proceeded from him in eternity. This procession, this sharing of the Spirit with his Father, took the earthly form of obedience to the Father’s Will even in the face of great antagonism and challenge. This procession, this sharing of the Spirit with the Father, also took the earthly form of mercy and compassion towards mankind who were the Father’s beloved if wayward creatures. The whole public life of Christ was one of actively returning to the Father the love that Father had showered upon him. The Spirit bonded the Father and Son in history as it had bonded them in eternity. The inner life of God and the spiritual life of the Christian show that love is not only to be received, but love must also be returned.