St. Philaret of Moscow
On the Gifts of the Holy Ghost
"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost." (Acts 2:4)
After man had fallen, and, no longer able to endure the uncreated light, "hid himself from the presence of the Lord God," (Gen 3:8) and God had withdrawn Himself from man, lest He should annihilate the transgressor by His holy presence, then was it that He Who is One in Three Persons, did of His ineffable mercy once more draw nigh unto alienated man, in successive revelations, "that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost" (II Cor 13:14) might raise up, and once more elevate the fallen one. In promises of love and mercy the Father revealed Himself and brought the sinner, awed by the decree of Almighty justice, under the mediation of the Son Who appeared under the form of humanity, and having overcome sin in His own self, and vanquished death, opened unto the children of wrath the door of the grace of the Holy Ghost; under the sign of "tongues like as of fire," the Holy Ghost at last appeared, and penetrated human nature in the Apostles, so that the good will of the Father and the merits of the Son might be applied to it, and "that by these we might be partakers of the divine nature." (Peter 1:4) On the very same day on which the law of "the spirit of bondage to fear death," (Rom 8:15) was given of old on Mount Sinai, on that same day has now come forth from Sion, "the law of the Spirit of life, of freedom, the Spirit of adoption," that we might understand "that the law of righteousness," which had not been attained by the worldly Israelites, can be attained by the children of faith, "who walk after the Spirit," (Rom 10:31, 8:4) and that the company of the elect go on in preordained course, to perfection.
We must therefore look upon the descent of the Holy Ghost, not only as upon a miracle which glorified the Apostolic Church, but also as upon an event, which is essentially connected with the work of our salvation. The present festival is not merely a commemoration of the past, but also a continuance of the Apostolic preparation for receiving the Spirit which ever "breatheth where it listeth." [In the English authorized version, this passage is rendered thus: "The wind bloweth where it listeth," (John 3:8) but in the Slavonic the words wind and bloweth are rendered spirit and breatheth.] The Apostles, as we are told in the book of the Acts, after having continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, "were filled with the Holy Ghost"; and not only the Apostles themselves, but according to St. John Chrysostom the disciples also who were with them, of whom "the number of the names together were about an hundred and twenty, (Acts 1:15) were all filled." And now the Church unites us also in this temple, as it did then, in the upper room at Jerusalem, to invoke the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, to come and to make His abode in us. That so great a supplication might not meet with the old reproach, "Ye know not what ye ask," (Mark 10:38) let us first consider, brethren, what it is "to be filled with the Holy Ghost," and in what measure this gift is necessary to all and every one of us.
We will not venture here to speak of the Holy Ghost, as of the Third Person of the adored Trinity, proceeding from the Father and abiding in the Son; for the "Spirit of God alone searcheth the deep things of God." (I Cor 2:10-11) The Spirit "which is sent by the Son from the Father" (John 15:26) in saving gifts, – the Spirit, which filleth man, and man who is filled with the Spirit, – these are the subjects, which it is given to man to understand; and yet not to every man, but only to him in whom the Spirit abideth; and we, who have scarcely "the first-fruits of the Spirit," (Rom 8:23) may only contemplate from afar, in the mirror of God's Word, the manifestations of this great mystery.
What the Holy Ghost is in His first gifts, then Holy Ghost Himself explains to us by His "tongues of fire." He is a spiritual, immaterial fire, working in two ways, – through light and warmth, – through the light of faith and the warmth of love. This heavenly light, as Solomon says, "shineth more and more unto the perfect day." (Prov 4:18) It dissipates the gloom of ignorance and doubt; it reveals the delusion of phantoms, which the mind, sunk in sensuality, not infrequently mistakes for truth; it enables man to see himself in the nakedness of his fallen nature, to perceive the world in its relation to the soul, and to feel the presence of God as the source of light; it imparts "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Heb 11:1) In the same measure in which the light of the Sun of Righteousness increases in the mind, does the heart also acquire warmth and fervor. Divine love drives from the heart the love of self; it destroys therein the thorns of carnal desires; it purifies and disencumbers it, and in return attracts a new light unto the soul. The fusion of these first spiritual gifts forms that "tongue like as of fire" which proclaims "the law of God" the word in the heart (Ps 37:31) of man, "forms Christ in him," (Gal 4:19) and regenerates him unto spiritual life.
The means by which man is filled with the gifts of grace is the one and indivisible working of the Holy Ghost: and yet this action of the Spirit may both begin and cease in man; it may diminish or increase, tarry or hasten; it takes various directions and forms; it is always in proportion to the readiness of the recipient, but never depends on his arbitrary will; it is accompanied by palpable results, but shuns the mind which desires to penetrate its source. Spreading outwards from within, it is like unto the dew, which invisibly contained in the atmosphere, descended upon the fleece of Gideon, and manifested itself in drops of water, which filled a bowl; (Judges 6:38) or unto the wind, which is seen only in the motion that it causes, but not in the causes which produce it. "The spirit breathes where it lists, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8) What then are the most remarkable changes that indicate the workings of the Spirit of God in the soul of man? There are moments, when even the man abandoned to the world and the flesh awakens from the fascination in which they enthrall him; he sees clearly, that his past life has been a chain of errors, infirmities, sins, and faithlessness towards God; that his deeds are naturally the seeds of future punishment; and that even his very virtues will not stand the test in the sight of the eternal Judge; he condemns himself, trembles throughout his whole being, and despairing of himself, is through this same despair led to put his trust in God.
What can be this disposition to repentance, if not that "great and strong wind which rent the mountains", and brake in pieces the rocks, – (that is to say, which puts down pride and softens hard-heartedness) – that great and strong wind, which the Lord sent forth before Him as He passed? (I Kings 19:11) What else can it be but that mighty wind which announces the descent of the Holy Ghost? What else can it be but that fear of the Lord with which we have been with child, which we have been in pain with and received the Spirit of salvation? (Isa 26:18) Blessed is he that yields obediently unto such an impulse of the Spirit of God. It will lead him by the "narrow way" (Matt 7:14) of self-renunciation; it will make him root up that which he has sown before, and demolish that which he had built up; it will teach him to suffer, and to "rejoice in sufferings" (Col 1:24) and to "crucify his flesh with its affections and lusts," (Gal 5:24) that he may fully yield his spirit into the hand of God. By degrees the mighty wind will change into those "groanings which cannot be uttered", and by which the "Spirit itself maketh intercession for us," (Rom 8:26) into that living voice with which "He cries in our hearts, Abba, Father"; (Gal 4:6) and then does man fulfill Christ's commandment of unceasing prayer, which had he been left to his own efforts, would have been quite impossible for him, both by reason of his tendency to be led astray, and by his ignorance of the subject and form of true prayer: "for we know not what we should pray for as we ought." (Rom 8:26) In close connection with the exercise of constant prayer, is spiritual solitude, during which the Christian "entering into his closet, and shutting the door," continues, like the Apostles, to "wait for the promise of the Father." (Acts 1:4) He does not abandon himself to those pleasures, in following which the lovers of the world become bound by vain conventionalities, and pursuing delights, and pursued by cares, seldom come to themselves; but he is found "bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ," (II Cor 10:5) he either raises all his desires heavenwards, "where his life is hid with Christ in God," (Col 3:3) or pacifies them within himself, where grace will at last reveal the kingdom of God. He fulfills the duties of his station, without becoming engrossed with its advantages; enjoys the good things of this world, without becoming attached to them; gains them like one who needs them not, and parts with them, as if they were superfluous.
If a man is but firmly resolved to abide as much as possible in this state of self-denial, then very soon will "his wilderness and solitary place blossom as the rose." (Isa 35:1) The grain of mustard seed which is cast into the garden of his soul, "will grow and wax a great tree" (Luke 13:19) through the corrupt covering of the old man, hourly more and more put off; the "new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Col 3:9-10) will shine forth, and the spirit of holiness will breathe in all his abilities and acts.
Thus does a man filled with the Holy Ghost afford unto every eye not darkened by prejudice, an image of perfection, before which vanishes like a shadow all that the world calls beautiful and sublime. To such, my brethren, did the Apostle refer when in speaking of some of the soldiers of the faith, he said, "of whom the world was not worthy." (Heb 11:38) Grace transforms into a priceless treasure everything in the man devoted to it, and everything with which it comes in contact. In his mind shines the spirit of wisdom, – not of that wisdom in which the sons of this world excel "in their generation," (Luke 16:8) as the Lord said, which teaches them to be ready in means, and clever in opportunities of acquiring temporal advantages, and to increase their worth, not so much intrinsically, as in the opinion of others, but that wisdom "which spiritually discerneth all things," (I Cor 2:15) in order to turn everything into a means of obtaining solely the eternal welfare of the soul. His will is moved by the spirit of freedom, "for the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, hath freed him from the law of sin and death," which imposes upon its slaves as many hard masters as there are wants and desires, passions and habits. In the depth of his heart abides the spirit of consolation and of "peace which passeth all understanding," (Phil 4:7) which "Jesus Christ gives" unto His Disciples, "not as the world giveth it," (John 14:27) for the peace of the world is but a short slumber, broken by the sound of threatening storms; a state of security founded on ignorance, so that the joyful exclamation, "peace and safety" is at times interrupted by "sudden destruction"; (I Thess 5:3) whereas the peace given by Christ is grounded on the sure hope of reconciliation unto God, so that the Christian in the very midst of his trials, sorrows, and dangers, "faints not," but yields himself up peacefully even unto death, assured that "our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." (II Cor 4:17) In him abides also a sublime spirit which is neither a blind audacity, nor pride decked out in ostentation, nor the lustre of natural virtues, impure in their source, but a true sublimity of thought occupied with God, a vastness of view bounded by eternity alone, a nobleness of feeling born of, and nurtured by the Word of God; a spirit of lowliness, which amidst the treasures of divine goodness discerns in its own self nothing but poverty and unworthiness, the more to "magnify the Lord"; whilst on the contrary they who are not born of the Spirit of God, are ever striving to find in their very defects something great, by their very abasement are seeking consideration, fawning on some to oppress others; a spirit of might with which the Christian is no longer that weak man, the captive of his own feeling, exposed on every side to attacks of the enemy, vanquished before the battle, and when subduing one passion, becoming the slave of another; but a faithful soldier "clad in the whole armour of God," (Eph 6:11) "who can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth him," (Phil 4:13) "and taketh by force the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 11:12) And what shall we say of those extraordinary gifts, of those signs of the Spirit which are given to the elect of God, for the benefit of others, and for the edification of the whole Church?
What unexampled bliss to be the vessel, the abode, the instrument of the Spirit of God! What heavenly happiness on earth! What a mystery, in which is hidden all that the spirit of man is in search of, and after which "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain." (Rom 8:22) But who, O Lord, "hath believed our report," and "to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" (Isa 53:1) "Flesh and blood revealed not" (Matt 16:17) this mystery. The world thinks that in heaven itself breathes the spirit of this world, and having already oftentimes heard the voice of Thy Spirit, O Lord, do now, even as of yore, continue to revile it, saying "these men are full of new wine."
Very true. There are some even among Christians, to whom the gifts of the Holy Ghost seem so strange, that although they dare not entirely to reject them, they nevertheless refer them to other persons and to other times, and without acknowledging the necessity of being "born again," content themselves either with a vain hope in the merits of the Mediator, or even with their own righteousness.
Let us not be deceived by the tempting aspect which worldly honesty generally bears. To be no enemy to faith, to do no crying injustice, to make an occasional display of charity, to avoid pernicious excesses, in short to fulfill merely the most indispensable and outward duties of a man and of a member of society, is but to whiten one's sepulchre, which nevertheless remains "within full of dead men's bones;" (Matt 23:27) it is to pluck the "leaves of the tree of life," given for the "healing of the nations" but not to "eat its fruit," (Rev 22:3) which should feed the Christian; it is to have "the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees," which does not lead into the "kingdom of God." (Matt 5:20) But to penetrate into the recesses of one's own heart, from which "proceed evil thoughts," (Matt 15:19) and there to establish purity and holiness, "to keep the whole law," and not to "offend in one point," in order not to be "guilty of all"; (James 2:10) who is the man, that left to his own understanding and powers, will boast of being able to do this? It is God alone Who "creates in man a clean heart, and renews a right spirit within him." (Ps 51:10) We must "be born again," in order to "see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
On the other hand, although the incorruptible seed of this heavenly birth was brought down unto earth by the death of the God-Man Jesus, (Pet 1:23) still we cannot leave all the rest to the power of His merits, however unlimited they be. How is this? Did God then deliver up His Son as a sacrifice not only to His own justice, but also to our ingratitude? Was the reality of the Sacrifice of the Cross made known to us in order that we might remain the more thoughtless and inactive? To think thus is not to exalt the merits of Christ, but rather to lower them, and to rest on them with the same pernicious thoughtlessness as once the Jews "rested on the law." If we have been baptized in Christ, then let us, in accordance with that confession, manifest in ourselves the fruit of baptism, not by water only, but by the Spirit, for Christ "baptizes with the Holy Ghost and with fire." (Matt 3:11)
Finally, when the Divine gift of the Spirit appears to us to be but seldom manifested, let us not on that account infer that it does not exist for all. It is for us all as long as all are for it. If its presence is no longer perceived, then it is either because though we have eyes yet we do not see; or is it indeed because the question, "when the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8) is near its solution, and the world itself is come to its last gasp? The universe knows what became of it when God said in His wrath, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man. for he also is flesh." (Gen 6:3) Then was it that not only lawless mankind, but all creatures subject not of themselves to vanity were destroyed by the revenging flood. (Rom 8:20) One more such threat, – and there comes the fiery deluge of the last judgment.
But as long, Christians, as God preserves our existence, and the welfare of His Church, so long need we not doubt that the Spirit of God abideth in it. Even as at the time of the creation of the world, "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," (Gen 1:2) so is it moving even now, during the continued restoration of man, upon the deep of our disordered being, and by its quickening power endures his regeneration by grace. Let us yield ourselves unto His Almighty will; let us turn our thoughts and desires from the flesh and the world unto Him; let us, out of the depth of our fallen nature cry unto the Holy One, that He should come unto us, and by the grace acquired through the mediation of the Redeemer, should cleanse, enlighten, regenerate, sanctify, and save our souls.