John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Since the origins of Western drama in ancient Greece, playwrights have utilized the narrative convention of the unseen character. Through layers of references and descriptions established by the onstage characters, the offstage, unseen character begins to acquire a distinct identity and motivation within the mind of the audience. The absence of such a character works to advance the action of the plot as much as any of the characters present. The Wizard of Oz is the best example of this in popular film. If the unseen character does eventually appear onstage – as does the “great and powerful Oz” – it is after much anticipation, and the moment rarely unfolds as the audience has come to expect it will. Sometimes the unseen character dies, or departs, or simply never shows up. Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot is a classic, twentieth century example. And sometimes, as in the plays of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, the audience may be tempted to question whether the unseen character is a projection, a symbol of an onstage character’s unresolved longings: an unseen male child, a lost mother, or a beautiful, young stranger. These characters are like messengers from another world, or magnets whose energy holds together a visible outer life and an invisible, unconscious world.
Throughout the long story of salvation history, there are distinct moments when the Holy Spirit acts in the manner of an unseen character. The Spirit dances around the borders or surges as an undercurrent beneath the lives of women and men, palpably felt though never quite glimpsed directly: at times, a blazing fire on mountaintop or altar, whose power is just barely contained; at other times, an almost fluid substance invading a prophet from without; at still other times, a guiding light illumining the dreams or visions of a hero. Even in the synoptic gospels, the moments we might consider cameo appearances of the Spirit serve in the narrative much more like elements of Jesus’s inner experience, enriching and deepening our understanding of Jesus as one whose every intention and motivation are guided by the Spirit. It is in our reading from Acts of the Apostles that we seem to encounter the iconic, much-awaited stage direction of the Divine Playwright: “ENTER, from above, the HOLY SPIRIT.” But as in many dramas, this momentous, much-anticipated appearance onstage contains an unforeseen twist: as the first followers of Jesus are “clothed with power from on high” the Holy Spirit speaks not a climactic soliloquy, but in the speech of one-hundred-twenty actors speaking all at once, in all the languages of the known world. Offstage and onstage collapse as framing devices that no longer apply, if they ever had. The author of Acts sends a clear message: we are there among them. The Holy Spirit has come upon us, and is with us, and is in us. The whole world has changed. A new era has begun. By undergoing baptismal rebirth, the Spirit can be given by one believer to another, like the passing of a candle flame.
This gradual, transformative, and utterly significant shift in our relationship to the Holy Spirit, effected by the death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus, is delineated with the greatest power and subtlety in John’s gospel. Scholar Andrew Byers has dedicated significant attention to the Holy Spirit as a distinct character in John. For Byers, the Spirit is a significant “offstage” presence who emerges quite slowly and mysteriously as an “onstage character.”[i] The role of the Spirit in relation to the intimacy shared by the Father and the Son comes into focus as language applied to Jesus in John is re-applied to the Spirit. Jesus describes the Spirit as “another Advocate,” the Spirit of Truth, who is with and in the disciples, and is unacceptable to the world. The true work of the Spirit ultimately extends beyond the gospel narrative. The Holy Spirit cannot emerge in his own right as an agent and source of the disciple’s ongoing transformation in Christ until the primary onstage character of the gospel – Jesus – has made his exit in the flesh.
At our baptismal re-birth, the Holy Spirit catalyzes a process that the ancient church would come to call theosis. A single white cotton thread, when dipped in a cup of red dye will gradually absorb the dye and become red by osmosis. Likewise, we are called to enter into full participation in God’s inner life, whereby we undergo theosis: absorption by grace of what God is by God’s divine nature.[ii] We do not become God, but we become more and more like God – and more and more the full expression of who and what God has made us to be, in a dynamic, life-long process of synergy between our faithful praxis and God’s free and energizing self-gift. As we allow God to be God-in-us, the likeness of Christ is restored to us and suffuses our whole personhood. While this is not a linear progression, there are some basic movements described in Scripture and the writings of the saints.
Before we ever consciously embark on this adventure, the indwelling Holy Spirit already prays within us, preparing the ground for theosis. In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.[iii]
The transforming Holy Spirit bestows deepening inner freedom as we engage the life of theosis in the Church. Again, Paul writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.[iv]
The empowering Holy Spirit frees us and sends us to receive each moment and circumstance of life as it is. The whole of life becomes an opportunity for ever-deepening theosis. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus counsels his disciples:
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.[v]
As a high school actor I had the joy and privilege of becoming more fully myself by inhabiting the skin of a character onstage. Later in life, that experience was put to the test when I myself began teaching high school and was unexpectedly asked to direct student theater. The most gratifying and miraculous moments in a high school play are those in which an audience catches a glimpse of a young actor’s unselfconscious humanity: the embodied expression of her personhood taking shape behind and beneath the memorized lines and tentative gestures. Here and there, true feeling flashes forth and art takes flesh before our eyes. She has become the character because she is becoming herself.
The true miracle of our own becoming, our own theosis, becomes apparent by a similar process. The Holy Spirit, once an unseen character dancing around the borders or surging as an undercurrent in the life of God’s people, has been revealed in power and glory at Pentecost. Now it is the Holy Spirit who anticipates, with hints and guesses, the unseen character waiting in the wings of our own inner stage. That Spirit encourages us in sudden epiphanies and cherished dreams, in quiet moments of profound trust, in providential encounters with loved ones and wise guides, and in times of waiting, when the strength of our courage or faith may be put to the test. For the one who is ready, the Holy Spirit stands ready as an intimate, personal companion, a co-creator, and a collaborator in our sanctification. Of the person whose life is gathered in that state of readiness, Richard Meux Benson, our founder, writes, “The powers of the Holy Ghost are ready to co-operate with him, if he is ready to use them. The Holy Ghost waits, and is kept waiting by our unreadiness. If we are too fast or too slow we miss his presence; whereas if we are just doing the right thing at the proper time, we find him ready to meet us and work with us.”[vi]
Come, Holy Spirit, again and again, in the Pentecost of every moment, revealing the likeness of Christ within, and sending us to see Christ in all. Amen.
[i]See Andrew Byers’ extended treatment of the Holy Spirit in Chapter 11 of his Ecclesiology and Theosis in the Gospel of John, Cambridge University Press (2017).
[ii]For a unique and masterful exploration of theosis from an Anglican perspective, see A. M. Allchin’s Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition.
[iv]2 Corinthians 3:17-18.
[vi]Richard Meux Benson. Instructions on the Religious Life, Series III.
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