THE HOLY SPIRIT: Water, Life, And The Spirit by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

Water, Life, And The Spirit by Raniero Cantalamessa

From: Come, Creator Spirit

If we can say, by analogy, that the whole of creation is sacrament, that is, sign of God, we can also see that certain elements of creation have become sacramental signs of the Holy Spirit also in a stricter sense: water in baptism as a sign of rebirth in the Spirit; oil and chrism in confirmation as signs of the Spirit anointing.  Water, then, is more than a mere symbol of the Spirit; it is an efficacious sign of the Spirit: it not only calls the Spirit to mind, but renders the Spirit present and active.

From what source is the title of the Holy Spirit, “living fountain,” derived, and what does it signify?  The author of the hymn tells us, in another of his writings:

The Holy Spirit was called water in the gospel itself, in the passage where the Lord cries out, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to me.  Let the man come and drink, who believes in me!  As scripture says, from his breast shall flow fountains of living water.”  And the evangelist immediately explains what he meant, adding, “He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive,” (John 7:37-39).  But the water we use in the sacrament is one thing, and the water that is the Holy Spirit is something else.  The former is a visible kind of water, the latter, invisible; visible water washing the body is a sign of what happens in the soul, but the Holy Spirit washes and nourishes the soul directly.

As usual, the patristic tradition, and in this case particularly Saint Ambrose, provide the link that connects scripture and our hymn:

By fountain, we do not mean the kind of water that was created, but the source-fountain of divine grace, that is, the Holy Spirit; it is he who is the living water.  So it follows that the Holy Spirit is a river, and how great and strongly-flowing a river.  If a river rises above its banks, it floods.  How much more the Holy Spirit, who stands higher than all creatures.  The fountain of life, then, is the Holy Spirit himself.

What, then, is the exact meaning of the expression fons vivus, living fountain, in our hymn?  In the first place it has the meaning of “living water” (fountain here stands for water, as the container for the contained), and also the meaning of “fountain of life.”  This is how a medieval writer paraphrased the expression we find in our hymn: “He is at the same time fountain of life, living fountain, fountain that enlivens, fountain that wells up from life itself and fountain that gives life to those to whom it comes.”

Three linked pairs are interwoven in this symbolism: the association water/life; the association water/Spirit, and the association Spirit/life.  In passing from the level of the first of these to the third, the meaning of the word “life” changes, or perhaps we should say it becomes loaded with new significance: It moves from indicating only natural and physical life to indicating also the life of the spirit.

The association water/life is so universal and so widely used that there is no need to explain it.  It is a particularly telling association in a culture such as that of the Bible which developed on the edge of the desert, in a region where the dependence of animal and plant life on rain was a matter of daily experience.  One of the ancient Fathers asked, “Why do we use the word water to indicate the grace of the Holy Spirit?”  He goes on to answer, “Because water is a necessary element in the make-up of all things: whether we talk of animal life or plant life, it is water that gives rise to life.”  In this symbolic role water very soon came to be associated in the Bible with the Spirit of God: “For I will pour out water on the thirsty land.  I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants,” (Isaiah 44:3).

The association water/Spirit is present, implicitly, in every reference to the Spirit making use of terms like “pouring,” (see Joel 3:1, Zechariah 12:10), “flowing,” or, “washing,” and in expressions like “baptize in the Spirit,” and, “born again of water and the Spirit,” not to mention the expressions recalled earlier in which Jesus refers to the Spirit using the image of “living water” and “fountains of living water.”

This symbolism finds its culmination in John’s gospel.  John sees the water that issued from Christ’s side as a sign and associates it with the gift of the Spirit given by Christ on the cross, (see 1 John 5:6-8).  In doing this, he is tacitly saying that it is to Christ that Ezekiel’s grand vision applies – the vision of the water flowing from the temple, causing life to flourish wherever it flows until finally it runs into the Dead Sea and transforms it into a sea teeming with life, (Ezekiel 47:1 ff.).  In fact, for the evangelist, Christ on the cross is the new and definite “temple” of God, (John 2:19), and the water flowing from his side is the fulfillment of the promise of “fountains of living water.”  The Holy Spirit is that “river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” on whose banks flourish the trees of life that, like the trees in Ezekiel’s prophecy, “bear fresh fruit every month,” the leaves of which are medicinal.

The Holy Spirit is therefore the water that flows from the Redeemer, which transforms the face of the desert of this life, and flows finally into the great “Dead Sea” that is this world of sin and into the little “dead seas” which are all the human beings in need of grace, transforming them all into places full of life.

At a certain point in the New Testament we notice that the symbol of water has disappeared, and only the reality symbolized remains, which is life.  And so we have the third association, Spirit/life, without any intermediary: “It is the spirit that gives life.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” (John 6:63).  “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death,” (Romans 8:2).  “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

At the Council of Constantinople in 381, when the Fathers needed to sum up their belief in the Holy Spirit in a short phrase that would be added into the Nicene Creed, they found no more essential or more important thing to say about the Spirit than this: that the Spirit gives life, that the Spirit is a “life-giving Spirit”: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, Lord and giver of life.”

The Bible gives us a whole series of interventions by the Spirit of God, and times when the Spirit was present, that trace out a kind of “history of the Spirit” within the history of salvation.  Every time we come to a point where there is a “leap forward” in the quality of life, we find the Holy Spirit there at work producing it.

The breath of the Spirit
came upon Adam at the creation and he became a “living being”;
It came upon the Virgin at the Incarnation, and the Savior started living in her.
It came upon Jesus in the Resurrection and made of him a “Spirit, giver of life.”
It came upon the apostles at Pentecost, and the church came into being.
It comes upon the waters of baptism, and human beings are born to a new life.
It comes upon the bread and the wine in the Eucharist, and they are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ.
It will come upon us at the end of time, and “give life to our mortal bodies.”

In the Latin tradition, the prerogative of the Spirit to give life is expressed in the adjective almus.  “Alme Spiritus” is one of the titles of the Paraclete that medieval authors preferred to use; we find it in many hymns, including some by the author of the Veni Creator, perhaps more often than “Holy Spirit.”  Almus comes from alere; it means generous, abundant, friendly, nourishing, life-sustaining.  At times it was used of the Earth (alma tellus), of the sun, of mothers (alma mater), and in every instance we see that it is associated with life.  John Paul II entitled his encyclical on the Holy Spirit, “Dominum et vivificantem,” words taken from the Creed, where the Holy Spirit is proclaimed, “Lord and giver of life.”  In it he proclaims the Spirit, “The one who gives life, the one in whom the inscrutable God who is One and Three communicates himself to humankind, establishing in us the wellspring of eternal life.”

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