National Catholic Register


Intimations of the Trinity’s Third Person

BY Jim Cosgrove

April 12-18, 1998 Issue | Posted 4/12/98 at 2:00 AM


The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus

by Raniero Cantalamessa OFM Cap

The Liturgical Press, 1994, 63 pp., $4.95)

There is a story, which may be one of Bishop Fulton Sheen's, about the Japanese fellow studying the dogma of the Trinity, who at the end of the lesson said: “I understand the part about the honorable Father, and the part about the honorable Son, but I am still not so sure about the honorable bird.’

The images used to symbolize the Holy Spirit are often not very helpful. The problem, of course, is that the attributes of the Holy Spirit don't easily correspond to our natural notions of personhood in the way that the Father and Son do. This in itself becomes a clue to the identity of the Holy Spirit. Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote: “[The Holy Spirit] does not appear as a separate and separable self, but disappears into the Father and the Son. The impossibility of developing a separate pneumatology [a science of the Spirit] is an integral part of his nature.’

That the Holy Spirit is always pointing to another person shows the appropriateness of the title, The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus. The principal role of the Holy Spirit is to make Christ present, then and now, and looking in the other direction, the life of Christ becomes the vehicle par excellence by which the Holy Spirit's distinctive nature is revealed. Christ is our model in all things. For us to get an idea of how the Holy Spirit is to work in our own lives, we should look to see how the Holy Spirit operated in the life of Jesus.

This has been done in admirable fashion in a short book by Father Raniero Cantalamessa OFM Cap, formerly professor of early Christianity and head of the department of religious sciences at the University of Milan, Italy. He now serves as preacher to the papal household. Since encountering his work by way of The Ascent of Mount Sinai, this reviewer has tried to snap up all the Cantalamessa he can. Few writers can match him for his knowledge of both patristics and currents in modern philosophy, and in the ability to write profound, personal, and stirring sentences.

The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus consists of four chapters, intended as meditations, each of which begins with an incident in the Gospels when the Holy Spirit is especially manifest in Jesus’ life. The first is Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, when, as St. Peter says, “After the baptism that John preached … God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Ac 10:37). Unfortunately, the mystery of Jesus’ anointing was de-emphasized in the West in reaction to heresy, such as the Gnostic view that the divinity of Jesus was conferred at the baptism. “The most obvious result of all this,” writes Father Cantalamessa, “is a certain weakening of the pneumatic dimension of Christology, that is, the attention accorded to the Holy Spirit's activity in the life of Jesus.’

The life of Christ becomes the vehicle par excellence by which the Holy Spirit's distinctive nature is revealed.

The Second Vatican Council made initial moves toward restoring the mystery of the anointing to its rightful place, but, as the friar notes, much work remains to be done. Regaining the early Church's understanding of the anointing will help us to see that our entrance into the mystical body is a sharing in Christ's anointing, that we might then go forth in the power of the Spirit to share in his mission, becoming ourselves a fragrant unction that spreads “the sweet smell of Christ” throughout the world.

The second meditation sheds light on the Gospel statement that the spirit drove Jesus into the desert to be tempted. There Jesus gains mastery over the devil and comes back filled with a power whose source is, “the spirit of God.’ Father Cantalamessa here presents an extended and fascinating treatment on how we moderns should think about Satan. The Letter to the Ephesians describes the devil as “the ruler of the power of the air” and one may think in this connection of an “atmosphere” that often pervades the mass media and public opinion.

The third chapter argues for a better appreciation of the kerygma, or proclamation of the Gospel, as distinct from the Didache, or teaching therein. The Holy Spirit wrought marvelous effects in the preaching of Jesus. “He speaks with authority.’ Likewise the Holy Spirit put a mysterious power into the proclamation of the first apostles and their followers that “Jesus is Lord.’ This kerygma enkindles faith in unbelievers, despite its seeming foolishness according to human wisdom. Over time, however, the kerygma became incorporated into catechesis, causing the drama of accepting the faith to fade.

Since our world today ever more closely approximates the conditions encountered by the first Christian preachers, Father Cantalamessa calls for a return to the kerygma, but proclaimed “‘in the Holy Spirit’ that is to say as true believers, running the risk if need be of cultural inferiority vis-‡-vis the defenders of pure reason and those whose main objective is to respond to the world's expectations.’

Finally, Father Cantalamessa examines passages of the New Testament in which the Holy Spirit is manifest in the prayer of Jesus. “It is the Holy Spirit who raises the cry, ‘Abba,’ from Jesus’ heart.’ This same spirit, with which we too have been anointed, causes us to pray likewise: “As proof that you are children, God sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father.‘“ (Gal 4:6). There follows a discussion of the familiar precept to “pray ceaselessly.’ Father Cantalamessa makes the very nice point that learning to pray “in the Spirit” will mean moving from mere juxtaposition of prayer and activity to a subordination of activity to prayer.

Of all the spiritual exercises one could undertake this year to deepen awareness of the Holy Spirit, it would be hard to find one more profitable and painless than reading The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus.

Brother Clement Kennedy is a Benedictine monk at Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California.