[A homily I gave in 2007 on the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.]
We’re in a time of watching and waiting—not like Advent, during which we wait for the coming of the Christ, but the post-Ascension period in which we wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is an important time in the liturgical year—we are coming to the end of the long Lenten-Paschal season, and we need the grace of the Holy Spirit, not only to carry us through the rest of the year, but to revive and strengthen us in our fervor and our fidelity to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We still have a mission in life, and most likely it will only become more demanding with time, so we cannot afford to be indifferent to the Holy Spirit, the Source of every grace we need.
During this time of watching and waiting, we commemorate the Fathers of the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea in the year 325. In a sense they were waiting for the Holy Spirit, too, because the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as consubstantial with the Father and the Son had not yet been formally defined, but in any case, the Fathers were gathered as the early disciples were, praying and waiting for the Promise of the Father, for they had an indispensable mission to accomplish. The early Ecumenical Councils established and formulated the basic dogmas of the orthodox Catholic faith, which will remain in force until the Lord returns. Some lesser teachings may be subject to change or modification, but the essential doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are part of the permanent and unchangeable heritage of Christ, handed on to the Apostles and preserved intact—and liturgically celebrated—by the Church.
For the Gospel today we have a section from the farewell discourse of Jesus, the concluding part which is his final prayer to the Father before He is glorified in his passion, death, and resurrection. So He is leaving the world, but sending the Holy Spirit to be with those He has entrusted with his word, his Gospel of salvation. Jesus is referring specifically to the Apostles in this prayer, but He also prays for “those who believe in Me through their word,” which means their successors in the apostolic ministry and all the faithful as well. It is only through the Holy Spirit that the Church is not only led into the whole truth, but that the truth of the Gospel is handed down from age to age, clarified, deepened, and expressed in ways that are understandable to every age and culture.
So we have to back up a little in the farewell discourse to see what Jesus has to say about the Holy Spirit, whom we are praying and waiting for, the One who will clothe us with power from on high, as Jesus told his disciples. But the Holy Spirit is not only given for our individual sanctification. He is given for the upbuilding of the entire Church, because the whole of the Church’s evangelical, sacramental, contemplative, and martyric mission relies entirely on the grace of the Holy Spirit for its fruitfulness in the work of bringing souls to salvation.
One task of the Ecumenical Councils was to affirm and define the divinity of the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the All-holy Trinity. We find the clearest testimony to the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John when Jesus says that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (15:26). This puts the Spirit on the same level with the Son who was begotten of the Father and who is one in essence with Him. This same passage is used in the original version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which the Eastern Churches still use today. (It is not quite accurate to call the Creed used in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches simply the “Nicene Creed.” All the Nicene Creed said about the Holy Spirit was: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Everything else about the Holy Spirit was added later at the first Council of Constantinople.)
Jesus three times referred to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. What will the Spirit of Truth do? Precisely as Spirit of Truth, He will teach us all things and bring to our remembrance all that Jesus has said. The Spirit will guide us into all the truth, speaking what the Father tells Him to, glorifying Christ by declaring to us his word. So the Holy Spirit is the Life-breath of the living Tradition of the Church, leading her into the full truth about Christ and the Holy Trinity. The Spirit will safeguard the revelation, the heritage of Christ which He gave to his apostles, and will bring it to fresh vitality generation after generation.
That is what the Spirit does for the Church. For the world, Jesus says this of the Spirit: “He will convince [or convict] the world concerning sin and justice and condemnation.” The sin Jesus refers to is unbelief, the justice (or perhaps vindication) is his return to the Father after having completed his mission, and the condemnation is the judgment pronounced upon the devil (16:8-11). In terms of this passage the mission of the Spirit in the world is to call unbelievers to faith, to instruct them about the unique and absolute claims of Christ—based on who He is and what He has done for us—and to warn them of the condemnation that awaits those who would follow the evil one. Yet this task is difficult, for the world “neither sees Him nor knows Him.”
With the individual believer, the Spirit is more intimate. Once Jesus said that the world doesn’t know the Holy Spirit, He said to his disciples: “but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” That was just before Jesus said that He and his Father would come to us and make their home with us. So the Trinitarian indwelling is here completed. With us and in us—that is how God wants to be. We have to rely heavily on the Spirit of Truth in this age of widespread deception. We so need to be reminded of all that Jesus said; we need to be led fully into the profound truth about God, the Church, the world, and even about ourselves. The Spirit is entirely Self-effacing, glorifying the Father and the Son; it is through the Spirit that the Father and the Son dwell in us and act in the world today. We need to pray to better recognize the Holy Spirit, to know Him, to love Him with that flaming intensity that only He Himself can inspire.
Jesus has great love and solicitude for his Church. At one point in his earthly ministry he likened himself to a mother hen who wanted to gather all her little ones around her, and at another as a shepherd with his flock. We see in Jesus’ final prayer to his Father the same care and concern for his disciples. He refers to them several times as “those whom You have given Me.” He is concerned for them because He has to leave them so that He can return to the Father. So He prays: “I am no more in the world, but they are in the world… Holy Father, keep them in your name…that they may be one, even as we are one… keep them from the evil one… sanctify them in the truth.”
The Lord still has the same concern for his Church, his flock, his disciples. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that now that Jesus has returned to Heaven, He lives to intercede for us with his Father. Now we are the ones whom the Father has given Him, we are the ones that need to be kept safe from the evil one and to be sanctified in the truth. This is why the Holy Spirit was sent to the Church and remains until the end of time.
But we have to receive this Spirit, be obedient to his word and inspirations, living by the grace of the sacraments and prayer, perpetuating the life of the Church in our own time and place. The Fathers of the Church have defined and formulated the revelation given by Christ to the Apostles and have handed it down to us. But we need to do more than hand it down to others. We need to appropriate its meaning for ourselves and bear fruit by allowing the Spirit to live and breathe in us here and now, so that the Faith will not simply be an ancient collection of teachings, but rather a dynamic way of life that can effectively unite us to the living God, that can be an inspiring witness to others that the word of Christ is true and is the way to salvation.
Jesus said the world will hate us for preaching his word [indeed: see what reaction you get from “the world” when you speak the truth about abortion, sexual morality, “gay marriage,” etc], but at the same time we would have Jesus’ own joy within us, the joy that comes from living in the Spirit of Truth, and knowing that one day we too will go to the Father, and share in the glory Jesus has had with Him before the world began.
It all begins now, with our daily faithfulness to the word of God: those who are found worthy of the Father are those, said Jesus, who have kept his word.