Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the Holy Spirit coming down on Jesus at his baptism. In the New Testament as a whole, the action of the Holy Spirit is an important element in baptism. In the 5 accounts of baptisms in the Acts of the Apostles, the spirit is always comes down, sometimes spontaneously from on high, or through the laying on of hands; in one case he comes down on everybody present, and in the curious case of the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip baptises him in the pond, but the Spirit comes down upon Philip, not the eunuch, and carries him off to Azotus. In all these stories the Spirit is at work, but the manner is unpredictable. The Holy Spirit is characterised by life and energy, spontaneous life, and containing an element of surprise.
There is a widespread enthusiasm for the Holy Spirit. Since the 1960s there has been enthusiasm for language about the Holy Spirit, who is seen as alive, vibrant, creative, and it is often said that what we need to do is open ourselves to this energy of the Holy Spirit. Even as the Church is declining, we carry on saying such things. And they need to be said – but what is new about this picture of the Holy Spirit since the 1960s is a notion that the Holy Spirit is at work where services and mission and Christian thinking are full of excitement, enthusiasm, and an energy that makes us feel joyful. It’s good that these things should have their place, but we can hype them in a way that misses something.
This kind of enthusiasm and vibrancy in worship is in fact only a door. We need to go through the door and into the room beyond to warm ourselves at a fire that is burning away in the fireplace. This is the hidden place where the profoundest work of the Holy Spirit goes on, and it manifests itself not so much in surface liveliness, as in something else. If you like, worship and activities and mission which are full of beans and excitement are like the icing on the Christmas cake – let’s have them, but we need too to dig in to the real fruit cake below. That is where we will find a more reliable sense of the exciting operation of the Holy Spirit. For instance, you could say, “what could be more exciting than the daily office?” – Mattins, Evensong, and the other offices where we quietly and diligently recite the Psalms. Some people might think I was joking. But you could compare it to furniture-making. You can get very nice fancy furniture easily knocked together and easily available on Amazon or in IKEA. A true craftsman or craftswoman’s furniture, however, will be different. Over a lifetime’s work they will have developed a sense of judgement. They can’t say where it has come from, and they have never been aware of it being imparted, but the years of experience leave them with a judgement about grains in the wood, types of wood, the kind of constructions that are possible and will last, and so on. And it comes from diligent perseverance and attention – sustained attention is important here. Spiritual maturity is given to us in a similar way to that judgement, through a persevering, diligent, trust in the practices of Christianity, such as the singing of the Psalms, and the daily hours of prayer, and the Eucharist.
One author takes as an example the bringing-up of children:
Imagine a family of five, two parents and three children – all love and care for one another, and any major event (when one falls and gets hurt, or when one wins a prize) any major event will mobilize all of them to help or support or praise … the member in question. But, in daily life there is often much pushing, screaming, grabbing of hairbrushes, not helping with the dinner or feeding the dog, and so on. The parents then decide that everyone has to treat each other with a bit more respect, more civility, more use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Many of us have experienced this and know that it works – at least for a time, until the please and thank you begin to get lost. Ratcheting up the amount of love everyone feels, on the other hand, is not the way to make life more pleasant in the household. There is no need.
(A.B.Seligman, Ritual and its consequences, p.25)
They all love each other already. The author goes on to say that these small rituals of saying please and thank you are important for inculcating in children a sense of what is needed for good relating with others. From these formal practices they will go on to evolve for themselves more complicated ways of saying please and thank you, where a simple please or thank you would not be enough. They will develop a sense of judgement.
It’s not the point to try and stoke up more love; and it’s the same with the Holy Spirit in the church: it’s off the point to spend a lot of time getting excited about the Holy Spirit. We all know the Holy Spirit is exciting. The point, rather, is to take seriously the simple practices that build in us a rich grounding in the life of the Holy Spirit: daily prayer, the Eucharist, and the other practices through which we walk with God. In monastic life in the same way the many practices and conventions, great and small, inculcate in us over the years what it is to live our life together.
At Jesus’s baptism we can imagine a great hush that came over the crowd as Jesus appeared, and took of his robes and stepped soberly into what St Paul calls the waters of death, and as he submitted to John’s baptism of repentance, even though he had no need of it. In this serious act, and all that followed from it, there is something thrilling indeed.