How do we understand the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism? That one question actually implies two: first, what is the source of our understanding? and second, what is the content of our understanding? To the first, we recognize that historic, catholic Anglicanism affirms lex orandi, lex credendi. Our liturgies state our doctrine. There was, after all, never a time that the holy Church was not liturgical. Hence our source for how we understand baptism in terms of doctrine is nothing but our baptismal liturgy. As St Basil (d. 379) writes: “we must make our confession of faith in the same terms as our baptism. Since we have received those terms from the baptismal tradition, [we] glorify God with the same terms we use to profess our faith”.
As far as the second question, we can look to the historic Book of Common Prayer for useful points of departure. The 1662 BCP reads: “None can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost.” Thus the Spirit is the key to “entry into the Christian life”, writes Macquarrie. The Spirit brings “the regenerating grace of baptism”, according to Basil. Yet here we must be clear; for as Macquarrie reminds us, ultimately “Christ remains the true minister of every sacrament”.
The Spirit begets sanctification. The liturgy reads, “wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost.” This echoes St Basil: “the water accomplishes our death, while the Spirit raises us to life…. If there is any grace in the water, it does not comes from the nature of the water, but from the Spirit’s presence”. Basil calls the Spirit “the perfector”, which is to say, He who seasons and matures us, who strengthens us, the “holy Comforter”, in a term that is traditional but perhaps still meaningful.
Baptism puts us into a Mystical relationship with God. The key moment of the 1662 liturgy — “I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” — bears this out. But look here at this curious word, “name”. As Heidegger points out, to name is “to command”, “to invite”, “to call forth”. To be baptized is to be called by God; therefore baptism sets in motion a process only through which we are able to discern God’s will. Or as Basil summarizes, “to worship in the Spirit implies that our intelligence has been enlightened”. Because of the Spirit in baptism, Schmemann emphasizes, the world is again Eucharistic. Basil resounds, in surely one of the most startling passages in all of the Christian literature:
Through the holy Spirit comes our restoration to Paradise, our ascension to the Kingdom of Heaven, our adoption as God’s sons, our freedom to call God our Father, our becoming partakers of the grace of Christ, being called children of light, sharing in eternal glory, and in a word, our inheritance of the fullness of blessing, both in this world and in the world to come. Even while we wait for the full enjoyment of the good things in store for us, by the Holy Spirit we are able to rejoice through faith in the promise of the graces to come.
The Spirit, he continues, gives “the baptism of salvation”. Macquarrie reminds us that the word “baptism” means “to plunge” or “to immerse”. Through the Spirit, the baptized person is immersed in a universe of saving grace. Only the baptized can truly say, “all is grace”. The new creation of baptism — “the beginning of life, the first of days”, writes Basil — transforms being-in-the-world from the salvific scarcity of Original Sin to the salvific abundance of Original Righteousness (that is, pre-Fall).
The Spirit enables us to model our lives on Christ’s example. Because the new creation is Eucharistic, “all things belonging to the Spirit may live and grow in him”, reads 1662. We are able to receive salvific grace, the things belonging to the Spirit. Through His workings in baptism, the Spirit prepares us to receive the Sacraments that provide strength and renewal of our baptism. This is how we can speak of each Sunday is a “little Easter” — which is to say, a renewal of our baptismal vows. Macquarrie here reminds us that baptism is “not only a turning to Christ; it is a turning with Christ or in Christ…. This sharing in Christ’s own baptism … is also a kind of ordination, a call to the lay apostolate, to share in the general priesthood of the Church.”
The Spirit, Himself a gift, also gives gifts. Through Confirmation (a sacramental affirmation of the baptismal ordination vows), we receive through the Spirit the “manifold gifts of grace” (1662). This is to say, simply but astonishingly, the Spirit renders more expansive our consciousness — what we are aware of. The Spirit establishes new boundaries of perception, to use a phrase from the 1960s.
Only in the Spirit can we truly “adore”. That word’s true meaning is seen etymologically from the Latin, ad + orare, literally “to pray toward”. Basil writes, “It is the unique function of the Spirit to reveal mysteries” and we must prefer nothing but Christ in our daily disposition. From 1662, “daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he come unto thy everlasting kingdom”. Baptism begins a journey. Perhaps this points to the pithiest way to understand what the Spirit does in baptism. For His presence and actions enable nothing less than the capacity for theosis, the uniting with God body and soul. Hence one might say, contra Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” a genuinely Christian improvement: “I am baptized, therefore I adore.”
Basil. On the Holy Spirit. Translated by David Anderson. Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980.
Heidegger, Martin. What Is Called Thinking? New York, New York: Harper, 1976.
Macquarrie, John. A Guide to the Sacraments. New York, New York: Continuum, 1997.
Schememann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1960.
The Book of Common Prayer. 1662.
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