THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Holy Spirit Comes To Help Us In Our Weakness by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

The Holy Spirit Comes To Help Us In Our Weakness by Raniero Cantalamessa

From: Come, Creator Spirit

We are reflecting, therefore, on the Spirit first as mystery of power and transcendence.  The Spirit represents the “numinous” (that is, the wholly other, the transcendent) in its pure state.  The Sequence for Pentecost very fittingly applies this concept to the Spirit when, praying to the Spirit, it says: “Without your divine presence (numen) there is nothing in man, nothing at all of innocence.”

The Old Testament often speaks of the Spirit of God who “assails” like a hurricane, or who “bursts in upon” certain people, like Samson, conferring a supernatural strength on them.  This revelation of power grew by the addition of the appellative “Holy,” qadosh, which from Isaiah 63:10 and Psalm 51 onward is more and more closely associated with Spirit and eventually comes to form one single composite name with it, the Holy Spirit.

But what does the Hebrew word qadosh mean?  The word “holy” has become more circumscribed, but also somewhat emptied of power, in modern usage.  It has taken on an almost exclusively moral meaning, signifying good, dutiful, pure.  It has become a reassuring sort of word.  But for Isaiah, who heard the Seraphs cry out this word three times while “the pivots of the threshold shook and the house filled with smoke,” it was anything but reassuring, so much so that he himself cried out, “Woe is me! I am lost,” (Isaiah 6:3-5).  In fact, “holy” is a term utterly full of the “numinous,” that is, loaded with the divine; it expresses a sense of the complete separateness of the transcendent, of absolute otherness, and in consequence it demands adoration, silence, purification of any who dare remain in its presence.  “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Samuel 6:20)  To say that God is holy is the same sort of thing as saying that God is a “consuming fire.”  “Holy,” qadosh, becomes closely associated with “terrible” or “awesome”: “Holy and awesome is his name,” (Psalm 111:9).  The term doesn’t refer only to the moral sphere but to the very being of a person.  “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst,” (Hosea 11:9).  Holy is something that belongs to the divine as opposed to the human sphere.  All of this is attributed to the Spirit when we call him “Holy.”

In the New Testament, this “sweeping unstoppableness” of the divine breath is brought out by the frequent joining of the names “Spirit” and “Power.”  God anointed Jesus of Nazareth “with the Holy Spirit and with power,” (Acts 10:38).  After his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus returned to Galilee “filled with the power of the Spirit,” (Luke 4:14).  The Spirit is equated with “the Power of the Most High,” (Luke 1:35), or the “power from on high,” (Luke 24:49).  The old “terrible” or “numinous” character of the Spirit, too, shows up here and there, as when Ananias lied to the Spirit and fell down dead, (Acts 5:3ff).

The coming down of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is deliberately described using the same signs which accompanied the theophany on Mount Sinai at the giving of the Law, (Exodus 19-20).  In an indirect way this affirms that the mystery of the Spirit is no less, nor is it in nature different, from the mystery of God.  The same mystery, the same effects: those who witness it are “dismayed,” “amazed,” “beside themselves with amazement.”  Before the church came to attribute to the Spirit in an explicit way the same honor and the same absolute sovereignty attributed to God, scripture had already done it in that way – indirectly, but perhaps for that very reason more effectively.

But let us now come to the practical aspect of our reflection.  What is it that the Bible wants to impress upon us with this revelation of the Spirit as strength and power?  What can we deduce from it, for our life of faith?  This, I think, above all else: The Holy Spirit is the one and only true strength and real power that keeps the church alive!  Just as the individual believer, the church itself cannot live by its own strength.  Its strength is not in “armies,” nor in “horses and chariots,” or in any other things of that kind.  “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.  What are you, O great mountain?  Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain!” (Zechariah 4:6)  Neither does the strength of the church consist in “the arguments that belong to philosophy,” or in intelligence, diplomacy, Canon Law, or wise organization.  Paul says: “Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:5)

It is therefore from the Holy Spirit that the church, and every preacher of the gospel, has the power to convince and to lead to conversion, to get through to the very heart of a culture, and to destroy within it all the bulwarks erected against Christ, and to lead people to the obedience of faith.  It follows, then, that the Holy Spirit is the source and the secret of the courage and the daring of all believers.  Of the apostles, at a very difficult juncture in their mission, we read: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (parrhesia), (Acts 4:13, 31). 

The Holy Spirit is the strength of the prophets, the apostles, and the martyrs.  As Micah exclaimed, “I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might,” (Micah 3:8).  Paul said, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power,” (2 Timothy 1:7).  Writing of the Christians who had to face wild beasts in the arena, Tertullian called the Holy Spirit the “coach of the martyrs.”  In his turn, Cyril of Jerusalem writes, “The martyrs bear their witness, thanks to the strength of the Holy Spirit.”

It is not then entirely true that “one cannot give oneself courage.”  On the spiritual level, at least, it is possible to “take courage,” because “the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” (Romans 8:26).  Therefore our very weakness itself may be a privileged occasion for us to experience the power of the Spirit.  Every single thing, in the life of the church or in the life of an individual believer, takes its power from the Spirit, or is without any power whatsoever.


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