On God being within and outside at the same time

The mystery that is God, is that this amazing power is both within us and close to us, and yet completely outside us and beyond our reach, at the same time. This is why it is so difficult to understand God the Holy Spirit, and what we are doing when we say, as we will do in the next few weeks leading up to Pentecost, “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful…”.

In one sense, it is God the Holy Spirit that is in all things already, in every human being and every living being. For God as Holy Spirit, as we say in the Creed every Sunday, is – “the Giver of Life”. So the Holy Spirit is the life-giving power within every living thing. Those who say they don’t need God, are actually saying that they don’t need life. But Jesus also gives us the Holy Spirit so we humans many gain eternal life, the escape from death, that he has won for us by dying on the cross. The puzzle is that he gives us what we have already got. He actually says so in our Gospel. (John 14:15-21) God, he says, “will give you that Spirit of truth….but you know him, because he is with you, he is in you.” So God gives us something we have already got? What a puzzle!

One way of disentangling this puzzle is to see the Spirit as water. We humans are about 57% water, and it’s because of this that we need to take on water regularly. We leak! When a thirsty person says “Water. Water!” it does not mean they do not have water within them – they do, or they would not be alive – what it means is that they do not have enough. In the same way, God is not a thing that we either have or do not have, but a life-giving power that we need to regularly top-up. This is precisely why those who stop coming to Mass do not feel any different to start with, only gradually and often only after many years, and sometimes sadly never, do they realize what they are missing.

Today in our 1st Reading (Acts 8:5-17) we have the first description of what we now call the Sacrament of Confirmation. Again, we have the same puzzle. Every Sacrament gives us the Holy Spirit. Indeed it is the Holy Spirit working in the outward form – water at Baptism, or bread and wine at Holy Communion for example – that makes God present for those who receive it. The people of Samaria have been baptized. So in one sense the Holy Spirit is already within them. But now, later,  Peter and John “laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” 

I put it like this. Although there is water in the air we breathe, we need to actually drink water to really get enough. In the same way, we need explicit prayer for the Holy Spirit to come to us, if we are to receive God within us as fully as we need him. It is really much the same as receiving Holy Communion. God will come within us when we receive. He is there as bread for us. But the more we explicitly ask him to work within us, the more we pray as we receive, the more we will receive. Sometimes, we will even feel the difference when we pray like this, but whether we feel anything or not, God works in us more powerfully when we receive him with this kind of explicit prayer.

Confirmation then is not principally about us confirming our Baptism. We certainly do renew our Baptismal Vows when we are confirmed, but the actual confirmation is the prayer for the Holy Spirit. The Bishop or Priest prays for the Holy Spirit to come upon the person, and then as he lays hands on them and anoints them he says: Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” 

So there we are. It is not us doing something, confirming our Baptism, not least because it doesn’t follow that if we understand, then it will somehow work better. Of course, it is good to understand our faith more, but God’s gift of himself to us as Holy Spirit is not dependent on how clever we are at understanding things. What I said earlier stands in Confirmation or in any of the Sacraments. It is our prayer that matters not our understanding; for since God is a mystery, those who say they understand, or think they understand are those who understand least.

This isn’t an excuse for us not to learn more about our faith, but it is a reminder that being a Christian is not about learning lots of facts. As a Dad said after the Baptism of his baby the other day “I didn’t realise it would be that easy.” He thought he would have to learn lots of facts. But of course it isn’t true. Yes, we do need to know lots of things, but we also need some even more important things, like love, goodness and truth. These are not things we can just learn about, they are things we have to live. So remember “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4:16)


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