Hidden Everywhere in Plain Sight: The Holy Spirit’s Dynamic Role in the Mystery of the Eucharist
We in the Catholic Church have much to be grateful for. Our embarrassment of riches is perhaps most obvious as we seek greater understanding of divine mysteries, such as the work of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy, and particularly of his work in the Eucharist. Being in the Church—ever ancient yet ever new—we are not forced to “build the bridge as we cross it,” or worse, “make it up as we go along.” Instead, as members of the Ancient Church, we have the consolations of the Holy Scriptures, the teachings and Tradition of the Church, along with the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, augmented by the examples and inspiration of the lives of the saints. Plus, with the exhortation of St. John Paul II to “breathe with both lungs” of the Church, East and West, we have a timeless treasure trove of catholic (that is, universal) Christian wisdom and understanding. Thus armed, we approach with confidence the question of the work and efficacy of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Mysteries, particularly in the mystery of the Eucharist.
We may proceed, however, with caution, for two reasons. First, while a case might be made for the place of “pure scholarship” in our understanding of these mysteries, there is much to be said for a mystagogical approach to encountering both the economy of God and also the mysteries of the Holy Trinity. The need for this mystagogical “initiation into the mysteries” has, maintains Stratford Caldecott, “been noted in church circles for years.”1 This heart-mind approach might be described as a “kneeling theology,” designed to provide spiritual life to the initiates, even while not alien to intellectual rigor.
Second, our approach cannot afford to be “scared off” from the benefits of being informed by a mysticism seated in Christian orthodoxy. The French Catholic theologian, Louis Bouyer, is helpful here as he works to salvage both the term and legitimate efficacy of “mysticism.” He situates the term firmly within the tradition of the orthodox Ancients, including 5th-century Church father St. Nilus, who described the Eucharistic host as “not mere bread” but, rather, as “mystical bread,” and also 4th-century father St. Gregory Nazianzus who described the altar as not simply “the table,” but “the mystical table.”2 Finally, Bouyer notes that these early fathers “use ‘mystical’ as designating the ultimate meaning of the Scriptures in relation to Christ and His work.”3
This rehabilitation of the experience, language, and tradition of the mystical within Christian orthodoxy is welcomed, and most appropriate, particularly as we seek to consider the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Indeed, we might even suggest that stripped of the mystical dimension and awareness, a meaningful and productive discussion of the sacrament of the Eucharist might not even be possible.
For those who might protest the employment of the mystical sense on epistemological grounds (claiming that it is easier to “know” God through intellectual study than through a search of the impenetrable mysteries of God), it may be helpful to consider that “knowing Christ” such as St. Paul prayed to “know him” (Philippians 3:10), might not fit into a neat, post-Enlightenment category of “knowing.” Instead, perhaps only if we add “grace” or, even better, “charity” as an epistemological category, does this Pauline ideal of “knowing Christ” even make sense. His is a “knowing” seated in faith, formed in hope, and lived in love. Interestingly, support for this idea comes from the East. Vladimir Lossky, a Russian Orthodox theologian, flatly states that there is “no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.”4
Finally, it will be helpful to acknowledge that exploring the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Eucharist should not be an exercise in either “creativity” or speculation, per se. Attempting to create something wholly new in relation to either the Holy Spirit or the Eucharist could be hazardous and a denial of that ancient and catholic treasure trove mentioned above. Instead, our “creativity” is best found in a wise application of the truths once delivered to the saints, an application that can only benefit the vagaries of our own era and the current cultural milieu.
Actor, Person, and God
When we consider the third Person of the Trinity, we must admit that for many Catholics, the Holy Spirit is the least known and understood member of the Holy Trinity. After all, Jesus, who came to us in the flesh, presents a wholly concrete understanding to our minds, and God the Father figures prominently enough in scriptures to provide a clear picture of his character if not his person. Except for such cameos as the descending dove at Jesus’ baptism and his outpouring at Pentecost, we have few such tangible markers by which to understand the Holy Spirit in scripture. That said, speaking both pastorally and theologically, Pope John Paul II, in Dominum Et Vivificantem, discerned an acute desire in people’s hearts today for “a fresh discovery of God in his transcendent reality as the infinite Spirit.”5 Of course, this equating of the Holy Spirit with God, and as God, is not confined to theological treatises, but is also underscored in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the biblical text itself, along with being found in the Patristic witness. This collective witness attests to the truth that the Holy Spirit is God. He is not a force, nor a feeling, but God.
The Catechism states, “The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three Persons, the ‘consubstantial Trinity.’”6 Likewise, scripture describes the Holy Spirit as omniscient, clearly a quality of the Divine (John 16:13). And pity poor Ananias and Sapphira of the Acts account who, Luke reports, paid with their lives for lying “to the Holy Spirit.” In clarification, St. Luke then has Peter summing up their infraction by concluding that they had lied, “not to man but to God” (Acts 5:3-4), obviously identifying the Holy Spirit as God. Finally, in a patristic witness, St. Augustine attests to the full divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit: “I sought for a Trinity among his holy utterances. And there was your spirit poised above the waters! Here, then, is the Trinity who is my God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, creator of the whole created universe.”7
As helpful as these testimonies are in buttressing our belief in the divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit, the Church fathers provide yet another intriguing theological apologetic for this truth. Bouyer is again helpful here. He explains that near the genesis of our Ancient Church, even while the status of the Holy Spirit was yet a matter of debate, a foundational tenet of the Christian theological understanding of salvation understanding was not absent. In short, St. Athanasius described this tenet in speaking of Our Lord: “He became human that we might become divine.”8 St. Ephrem the Syrian, the 4th-century monk, poet, and doctor of the Church, penned a similar notion in a couplet that has made its way into the Divine Liturgy of the Maronite Catholic Church: “You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity, and our humanity with your divinity…. You have assumed what is ours and you have given us what is yours.”9 As Norman Russell explains, this mysterious equation—identifying our divinization by grace, as being the telos of our spiritual pilgrimage—was simply assumed in the early Church and came to be known as the “exchange formula.”10 Regarding such divinization of man, what in Greek is called theosis, Dionysius the Areopagite, the 6th-century Syrian writer, described it as “the attaining of likeness to God and union with Him so far as possible.”11 And from the West, while not specifically employing the term theosis, the great spiritual director and mystic, St. John of the Cross, arguably describes the reality of this same spiritual phenomenon: “When God grants this supernatural favor to the soul, so great a union is caused that all the things of both God and the soul become one in participant transformation and the soul appears to be God more than a soul. Indeed, it is God by participation.”12
It is here where our story of the personhood, divinity, and work of the Holy Spirit becomes particularly intriguing. As Bouyer points out, St. Athanasius held this exchange formula of humanity and divinity as an established truth; he also saw its spiritual corollary as a given: “For it is by the Spirit that we are all said to participate in God.”13 Athanasius’s point here was twofold: first, our divinization by grace was our God-appointed telos—our end, our goal. Second, it is the Holy Spirit who is primarily charged with shepherding us to this end. Thus, the Holy Spirit as God is God leading us to God.
Together, these witnesses buttress the truth of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, while also underscoring that this same Holy Spirit is tasked with unique and special roles. We become most aware of these pneumatic ministries as they are described by Our Lord through the testimony of St. John. This “other Counselor…, the Spirit of truth,” says Jesus, “dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 14:17). And in so dwelling with and in us, this same Holy Spirit, attests Our Lord, “will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
It is important to remember that this divine indwelling is no static affair. Indeed, this indwelling underscores the Holy Spirit’s primary ministry toward us—his work in bringing us to participation in God. Again, as St. Athanasius taught, “…it is by the Spirit that we are all said to participate in God…, (to be) participants in the divine nature.”14
Accordingly, the Catechism teaches that the Holy Spirit does his work in and to us through the Sacraments, which are themselves “actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church.”15 Also, “This gift of grace through the action of the Holy Spirit implies a participation in the very life of God—the life of the Trinity.”16 Likewise, Russell also reasons, “Through baptism and the Eucharist (we) participate in the Body of Christ, the new humanity which Christ created and as a result of his Passion, exalted to the highest heaven.”17 Russell then cites the patristic witness in the person of St. Cyril of Alexandria, who maintained that through the Incarnation, human flesh was exalted, and “The Word became human that humanity might become divine.”18
Thus, continues Russell, “Through the Eucharist the Son dwells within us in the corporeal sense, while the Spirit renews us and transforms us spiritually.”19 But St. Cyril is not alone in his understanding of the Holy Spirit’s divinizing work in us through the Eucharist. Russell amplifies the thought of the Cappadocian Father, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, by asserting, “Together with the Son, the Spirit deifies human beings through baptism. The Eucharist is also said to lead them to deification.”20 Finally, the contemporary Western thinker, Andrew Hofer, points out that in the Ordinary of the Mass in the West, “When the deacon, or, in his absence, the priest pours wine and a little water into the chalice, he says quietly:
By the mystery of this water and wine
may we come to share in the divinity of Christ
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”21
Hofer continues to draw the connection between the Eucharist and our divinization by grace, quoting from the Prayer after Communion on the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Grant us, almighty God,
that we may be refreshed and nourished
by the Sacrament that we have received,
so as to be transformed into what we consume
Through Christ our Lord.22
Along with the Holy Spirit’s work of divinizing us through the mystery of the Eucharist, we should here cite one added task with which the Holy Spirit is charged. The Augustinian scholar, Father David Meconi, draws our attention to this divine task in his notes to the Ignatius Critical Edition of The Confessions. Commenting on Augustine’s treatment of the Holy Spirit in Book XIII, Meconi notes, “As the Father imparts existence and as the Son communicates form and beauty, the Spirit’s role is to order all things in the cosmos into a harmonious and structured whole.”23
It is highly significant that these divine tasks executed by the Holy Spirit—our divinization accomplished at least in part via the Eucharist, and the work in the ordering of all things in the cosmos—are directly related and integral to the ultimate telos of humanity, God’s crown of creation. Again, that telos is divinization and “participation in the very life of God—the life of the Trinity;”24 thus we assume our place in the divinely appointed order of all things.
Time and Place
But perhaps as important as the recognition of these twin tasks of the Holy Spirit, is the understanding of when and where these tasks are to be executed. A hint toward our understanding as to the when and where these tasks are to be accomplished can be found in the Eastern Churches’ description of the Eucharist as the “Holy Mysteries.” Simply, the mysterious sacrament of the Eucharist is never merely an individualistic nor localized phenomenon. We should recognize, instead, the Eucharist is an event that also occurs outside of time and therefore does not occur exclusively in a punctiliar manner. St. Ephrem and his concept of the “two times” can help us here.
The Syrian Saint drew a distinction between ordinary, or linear time, and what he termed sacred time. For Ephrem, sacred time “knows no ‘before’ or ‘after’, only the ‘eternal now’: what is important for sacred time is its content, not a particular place in the sequence of linear time.”25 Thus, in St. Ephrem’s understanding, an event such as the Eucharist, while certainly occurring within historical time, also exists in the eternal now. As such, for St. Ephrem, the Eucharist is a premier example of the Incarnate Lord’s literal entry (along with the Eternal Now) into historical time. In Ephrem’s spirituality, the mystery of graces such as the Eucharist “affects all historical time and all historical space.”26 It would not be too much here to describe this intersection of eternal with historical time as the implosion of eternal time into the linearity of historical time. Using more biblical language, we might better describe this “implosion” as the entrée of God’s grace into human time, life, and experience.
But Ephrem’s perspective on time and eternity is neither anomalous nor peculiar to the Christian East. Cardinal Ratzinger, in the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, reflects on eternal life being not simply life that occurs beyond the reach of the historical timeline. “Eternal life,” writes Ratzinger, “is life itself, real life which can also be lived in the present age.”27 Eternal life then, for Ratzinger, is, as in the case of St. Ephrem’s sacred time, an implosion of grace into the timeline of human existence.
A summation of the Holy Spirit’s divine work in and through the Eucharist will be most fruitful, I suspect, as we, like the Fathers cited above, “work backwards” from the acknowledged telos of human persons. This telos is divinization, or theosis—becoming partakers of the divine nature—and thus entering, by grace, into the life of the Holy Trinity. We next observe that it is the person of the Holy Spirit, living in us, who is commissioned with the awesome task of aiding us in our divinization. In concert with this, it is this same Holy Spirit who is responsible, on both an individual and cosmic level, for the proper ordering of all things. Following these points, we must recognize—as St. Ephrem suggests—that in the Eucharist we are now truly exposed to a grace-filled reality that exists both in the Eternal Now, and also within the linearity of our temporal understanding and experience.
We can thus draw key conclusions. First, as God, the Holy Spirit affects our divinization while he concurrently also directs the true re-ordering of all things under the headship of Our Lord Jesus. As such, the re-ordering of humanity into the fellowship of the Holy Trinity is a key component of this overall cosmic re-ordering. Indeed, the cosmic recapitulation of all things under Our Lord will not be complete until believing humanity—the crown of his creation—is also rightly re-ordered. St. Paul more than hints at this in Romans 8 where he writes that the creation, long subjected to futility, “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God,” when it shall finally be “set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19, 21). Next, as the Eucharist plays a key, catalytic role in our divinization, or entrée into the Trinitarian fellowship, it occurs as a phenomenon existing within the human time frame, while also existing in the Eternal Now of sacred time.
Thus, the Eucharist, through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit, is the heavenly medicine which immediately initiates the repair and re-ordering of both individual believers and also the catholic body of believers which is the Church. Likewise, as the sacrament affects its mystical work on the local and the cosmic level, it does so simultaneously in both historical and sacred time. Hence, as we as individuals partake in this truly cosmic sacrament of the Eucharist, we are being progressively divinized and “re-ordered,” as his Spirit works to re-order all things. This gracious partaking beckons us into presence of the Holy in the Eternal Now, even as we, in our local parishes, shuffle silently forward toward the altar as if along the tracks of human temporality.
1 Stratford Caldecott, The Seven Sacraments (New York: A Crossroad Book, 2011), 125.
2 Louis Bouyer, A History of Christian Spirituality, vol. 1 (New York: The Seabury Press, 1960), 409.
4 Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 9.
5 John Paul II, Dominum Et Vivificantem, Introduction, 2.
6 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 253.
7 St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions (San Francisco: St. Ignatius Press, 2012), 13.5.6.
8 Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 23, 24.
9 Book of Offering, Rite of the Syrian Maronite Church.
10 Russell, 24.
11 Ibid., 21, 22.
- 12. The Complete Works of St. John of the Cross, Kieran Kavanaugh, trans. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991), 165.
13 Bouyer, 418.
15 CCC, 1116.
16 Caldecott, 9.
17 Russell, 24.
18 Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 191.
20 Ibid., 222.
21 Andrew Hofer, Divinization; Becoming Icons of Christ Through the Liturgy (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2015), 9.
22 Ibid., 10.
23 St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, 413.
24 Caldecott, 9.
25 Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 29.
26 Ibid., 30.
27 Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 82, 83.