Every prayer routine in the Byzantine tradition, whether at church or at home, begins with a hymn to the Holy Spirit: “Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and dwell within us, cleanse us of all stain, and save our souls, O Gracious One.”
At a time when normal lines of contact between church and home have been frayed by pandemic restrictions, this opening prayer to the Holy Spirit keeps this connection alive. It reminds us that the Holy Spirit is at work in every activity, be it communal worship or in the quiet room of our hearts.
In fact, our encounter with the Holy Spirit in the Divine Liturgy offers a few lessons in how to best prepare our hearts to return to public celebration of the Mass at God’s house or, if public worship remains impractical, to ensure that we maintain the proper spiritual housekeeping in our hearts.
Strangely, apart from this introductory prayer, Byzantines seldom address the Holy Spirit during services. Instead, prayers are addressed to the Father and to Christ, concluding with a doxology that names all three persons of the Holy Trinity.
In the Byzantine tradition, the Holy Spirit’s presence in prayer is assumed rather than invoked. The hymn “Heavenly King, Comforter” simply announces the Pauline impulse that undergirds all Christian prayer:
“For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
Together with the Apostle, the Byzantine tradition affirms that all prayer is accomplished in and through the Holy Spirit.
But if the Holy Spirit is hidden within the Divine Liturgy, he becomes even more so between the feasts of Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday. During this time, the Byzantine liturgy skips the “Heavenly King, Comforter,” at the beginning of services. On the eve of Pentecost it returns once again, sung at its original place during Vespers.
Byzantines “fast” from singing this hymn, much like they “fast” from celebrating the Divine Liturgy on weekdays during Lent. Since Divine Liturgy commemorates the Resurrection, we reserve it during Lent for Sundays only to nourish greater desire for Easter, the feast of feasts. In the same way, refraining from “Heavenly King Comforter” nurtures a desire for Pentecost.
In this way, the faithful can better understand that fasting from public worship, while not the norm, does help whet our desire for that same liturgy, and the encounter with God which it provides.
A Humble Spirit
Such abstention from the liturgy also helps us to notice. While fasting from food reminds us of our hunger for God, refraining from singing to the Holy Spirit helps us pay attention to our need for him in our lives.
But it’s hard work to pay attention, because the Holy Spirit is humble. In his humility, he works through people, hiding his operations under the guise of human hands. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit is the protagonist, active in every chapter from the moment the tongues of fire touched down in the Upper Room. He inspires Peter in his preaching. He nudges the presbyters to choose the first deacons. He accompanies the discernment of the early Church about circumcision. He emboldens Paul in his labors to establish Christian communities. The Holy Spirit prefers to perfect his work through these earthen vessels.
On the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, Byzantines commemorate the First Council of Nicaea, a feast of the Holy Spirit in its own right. Through the Council Fathers, the Holy Spirit reveals the truth about God, giving us the Nicene Creed. The Council Fathers are the “trumpets of the Spirit,” who “in the midst of the Church sing in unison, teaching that the Trinity is one, not differing in substance or Godhead” (Festal Vespers Hymn).
The Creed narrates correctly who Christ is. He is “true God from true God, consubstantial with the Father.” The Holy Spirit is the “the spirit of truth” and confirms at Nicaea that Jesus is not a liar. The Father and the Son are one, and whosoever has seen the Son has seen the Father. The inspired Creed assures us that the God we worship in church is the same God who is known through the Scriptures. This emphasizes the pattern of humility that characterizes the Holy Spirit. In the Creed, the Holy Spirit reveals not himself, but the Son’s identity. In the same way, he humbly awaits to be sent from Heaven, promised by Christ.
In his humility, the Holy Spirit works on behalf of all people. The Holy Spirit exists to give life to others and “waters all creation that all might live in him” (Byzantine Festal Matins Hymn, Tone 4). The Holy Spirit fulfills Moses’ wistful desire that all of Israel would be prophets (Numbers 11:29). The Church is the new Israel, and its holy members are the answer to Moses’ plea: “By the Holy Spirit, all the divinized see and prophesy” (Byzantine Sunday Matins Hymn, Tone 8).
Thus, in seeking the Holy Spirit, whether in public Mass or private devotion, we learn about humility from the supreme model of humility, thereby better preparing us during this time of pandemic and recovery to receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts and into our midst.
Indeed, the Holy Spirit reveals more intimately God in our midst, offering us the spirit of adoption as sons and daughters. The trouble is, while we objectively receive sonship in the Spirit at baptism, we spend our lives receiving this identity subjectively. We must “affiliate” ourselves in the literal sense, uncovering more and more who we are: sons and daughters of God.
The spirit of adoption is experienced most fully at the Eucharistic table. The priest calls down the Holy Spirit at the epiclesis, first “upon us” then “upon these gifts lying before us.” This Byzantine prayer emphasizes the goal of the Eucharist to turn not just bread and wine, but you and me, into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Now with churches returning to normal celebration of the Eucharistic banquet, many are concerned about what the physical absence from the Eucharistic celebration has done. We may feel as estranged sons or daughters. During this time of quarantine, we have never been deprived of the banquet of the Holy Spirit. He has remained with us, giving voice to our groaning, ready to ease our longing for our Eucharistic Lord.
Largely homebound, we may compare our time with the Upper Room, where we see Jesus at his most intimate: he washes feet, exposes wounds, and breaks bread with his friends. After the Ascension, the disciples are once again huddled in an Upper Room and are invited to a different kind of closeness in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In our own Upper Room, we enjoy the same intimacy. We must partake of the banquet of the Holy Spirit. The parable of the Prodigal Son gives us two ways to approach this table. We can approach as the prodigal does, in humble repentance, and enjoy the feast. We also have the choice of the older son, who prefers the taste of bitterness to the fatted calf before him and sits at the sidelines of the party.
Quarantine can be a feast of the Holy Spirit — a time to recognize his humble presence, be renewed in apostolic zeal and be emboldened to rebuild the Church. The bitter pill of the older son is hard to swallow; it may well choke us if we let it. But, together with David, we can ask in his perfect psalm of repentance: “do not deprive us of the Holy Spirit … that I may teach transgressors your ways and sinners may return to you” (Psalm 51:11; 13).
If we let the Holy Spirit do this work, then this desert experience just might bloom into a garden.