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Who Proceeds from the Father

November 30, 2013

To be a person is to be utterly unique and dynamically open to others. The three Persons of the Holy Trinity are utterly unique and dynamically open in a divine and uncreated fashion that the frail vessels of our created and human words can no more adequately describe than a measuring cup can contain a thousand oceans. Nevertheless, the holy fathers, who constructed the miracle of the Creed on the basis of their experience of the Holy Trinity, provide the most perfect expression of the uniqueness and openness of each of the three Persons. The Heavenly Father is unique in not being begotten, but begetting, in not proceeding from another, but being the cause of procession, while the Son is unique in being begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit is unique in proceeding from the Father. As Saint Basil the Great put it, “We neither call the Holy Spirit unbegotten, for we know but one unbeggoten and one source of all things, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, nor do we call Him begotten, for we are taught by the tradition of the faith that there is one only-begotten. Rather, we have been taught that the Spirit of Truth proceeds from the Father and confess that He comes from God in an uncreated fashion” (Letter 125, PG 32.549c). What does it mean to proceed from the Father in an uncreated way? Saint John of Damascus writes, “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, not in the manner of being begotten, but in the manner of procession (οὐ γεννητῶς, ἀλλ ἐκπορευτῶς). This is a different way of existence as incomprehensible and unknown as the generation of the Son” (An Exact Exposition on the Orthodox Faith, 1, 8, PG 94.816c).

This high, apophatic theology of the Church about the Holy Trinity in eternity apart from the world rublev iconand history might seem removed from our daily lives and daily struggles, for all we have and all we know is the world around us and the past that is behind us. And yet, the Creed tells us that there is something beyond time and space, and it is not confusion or chaos, but one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that is one not simply by virtue of having the same essence, but by virtue of there being one source, the monarchy of the Father from Whom the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds. And that one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Holy Trinity, one in essence and undivided, created the world, loves the world, and seeks the salvation of each and every one of us.

It was in our Lord’s final teachings to His disciples at the mystical supper in the upper room that He revealed His boundless love for His disciples, the ultimate goal of the incarnation, and the pledge of the Holy Spirit. In this most sacred of Christian discourses recorded in the Gospel of John, the Lord revealed Who is the person of the Holy Spirit in eternity and what is His ministry in the world, saying, “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of Me” (John 15:26). Being sent and proceeding are no more interchangeable synonyms than are the words ‘time’ and ‘eternity’ (which emphatically does not mean just a lot of time). In the womb of the Holy Trinity utterly independent of the creation of time and space, the Spirit proceeds from the Father. But into this created world and in these latter days, the Son and the Father send the Spirit to be the Comforter thus continuing the salvific work of the Father and the Son shaping it to each human soul in a way that is dynamic, open, and utterly unique. And as the Lord Christ comforted the multitudes, “healing the brokenhearted, preaching deliverance to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, setting at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18), so now another Comforter is promised that heals not only from without, but from within as the Lord himself declared, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16). The Disciples and all Christians thereafter would not be orphaned after Christ’s death and resurrection, for they would have the Holy Spirit to guide them and lead them.

In his Homily on the Gospel of John, Saint John Chrysostom comments on Christ’s holy words: “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.” The Saint explains, “He called Him the Spirit of Truth, instead of the Holy Spirit, to show that He will be trustworthy, for He is the Spirit of Truth. He said that He ‘proceeds from the Father’ to demonstrate that He has an exact knowledge of everything in precisely the same way that Christ said of Himself, ‘I know whence come and whither I go’ (John 8:14). He said ‘Whom I will send unto you from the Father’ with regard to the truth that no longer is the Father alone sending the Spirit, but the Son sends Him as well.” (Homily 77, PG 59.417). That the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Father alone is as important as the belief that the Son is begotten of the Father and the Father alone. It not only preserves unity of the Godhead and the veracity of the truth revealed by Christ in the Holy Spirit, but also assures the honor, glory, and worship due to the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life.

Proceeding and sending should never be confused. The Spirit proceeds from the Father in eternity as the Creed confirms, but is sent in time by the Father and by the Son as the New Testament relates. In his Homily on Pentecost, Saint Gregory Palamas not only affirms this teaching, but also adds, “Christ now sent forth the Spirit Who comes from the Father and is sent by Him from heaven. But when we hear that the Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son, this does not mean that the Spirit has no part in their greatness, for He is not just sent, but also Himself sends and consents to be sent.”

But how can making such distinctions between proceeding and sending influence our core beliefs? How can the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father change the way we live? The Creed opens a window not only into the wondrous workings of God in the world through the person of Christ, but also into the uncreated, ineffable life beyond life of the all Holy Trinity. When we love someone and we trust someone, we share intimate details of our life with that person. That the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father is such a detail, revealing God’s intimate love for us. These words are beyond what we can rationally understand, and yet they point to a dynamic clarity. Furthermore, stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father is stating that the Holy Spirit is God and the Holy Spirit is unique, even as stating that the Son is begotten of the Father is stating that the Son is God and the Son is unique. If union and uniqueness are so important at a level beyond the reaches of human and angelic thought, then in lives of those made in the image and likeness of God, they are undoubtedly of great import as well. We too are called to be persons, to be unique, to be in union with others, to be dynamic, to be open, to share, and to love. We are even called to be comforters in this world.  If these truths become our own core beliefs, you can imagine how that might change our perspective on how we are to spend our earthly journey. We not only have an advocate before the Father in Christ Jesus, but also “the Spirit of His Son in our hearts crying Abba, Father.” God’s openness to us and God’s love for us are truly boundless. May that knowledge help us become more open to God and to love Him more that we rejoice as those enlivened by the Holy Spirit “with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).

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