In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul declares that Christ has set us free for the sake of freedom itself (5:1). Our life in Christ is characterized by freedom, eleutheria, meaning essentially freedom from the constraints of Mosaic law. It is a freedom in the Holy Spirit, which enables us, by grace alone, to live not “according to the flesh” but “according to the Spirit,” in love, joy and peace. Yet this new life has its own constraints, its own demands: “If we live by the Spirit,” Paul admonishes, “let us also walk by the Spirit” (5:25).
In the season of Pentecost, which marks the birth and continued renewal of the Church, it is appropriate for us to ruminate on this matter of freedom, to rejoice in the liberation it affords while we acknowledge the limitations it imposes. Freedom in the Spirit means freedom by the Spirit. It means, to take up the apostle’s own metaphor, that we have passed from slavery to sin and death to another form of slavery: a bondage, gladly and even joyfully assumed, which is so total that we can only declare: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” It is this total bondage that, paradoxically, grants us the only real and genuine freedom we can know.
As we meditate on this mystery of our own freedom, it is important to recognize another freedom, that of the Spirit Himself. Set free from the demands of the Mosaic law, we often attempt to encase the Spirit in other law, to limit and even control His movements and purposes. This is probably nowhere more apparent than in our conception of the sacraments, particularly baptism and chrismation. It’s all too easy to assume, even unconsciously, that our ritual acts and gestures in some way determine the Spirit’s actions and thereby limit His freedom.
Exegetes and specialists in sacramental theology have long been perplexed by the evidence, offered by the Book of Acts, regarding earliest forms of Christian initiation. They, and we, tend to project onto the early Church ritual forms and formulas as they have taken shape over the centuries. Water baptism, accordingly, is understood to be sealed by subsequent chrismation, bestowal of the Holy Spirit. Theologically this sequence—baptism followed by chrismation—is justified by Scripture: buried with Christ in baptism (Rom 6), we are raised up to a newness of life, sealed by our “personal Pentecost,” our anointing in and by the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17; 22:38; Rom 8:9-11; I Jn 2:18-27; Tit 3:4-7; etc.).
Nevertheless, the Acts also depict the sequence in reverse: effusion of the Spirit followed by baptism. Aside from the narrative of Pentecost, found in chapter 2, there is the example of the apostle Paul himself. Blinded by the heavenly light that accompanied the call of the risen Jesus, Paul (Saul) entered Damascus, where he was received by the disciple Ananias. Responding to a vision entrusted to him, Ananaias laid hands on Paul, in order that he might receive both his sight and the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Then he (Paul) rose and was baptized” (9:1-19).
Then again, the initial “Jewish Pentecost” is completed by the “Gentile Pentecost” recounted in Acts 10. In the house of the centurion Cornelius, Peter preached to the crowd concerning the Lord Jesus. Then “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word,” and subsequently they were baptized. Here, as in Acts 2, reception of the Spirit precedes rather than follows the ritual of baptism.
These Pentecostal events represent exceptions. Taken with other accounts, however, such as that of Paul’s own baptism, they illustrate a point we should never forget or minimize. That is that the Spirit of God is and remains free: free from any ritual act or formula, free from any manipulation by sinful human beings, free to come and go as He will, like the wind (John 3:8; it is significant that in Greek there is a single word, pneuma, for both wind and spirit).
The Spirit of God is a Spirit of absolute freedom, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Such total inner freedom is essential if He is to realize His work of renewal, sanctification and salvation within our lives and within creation as a whole.
At the great feast of Pentecost, we stand in awe before this Spirit, this mysterious, all-powerful presence of divine Life. One of the Holy Trinity, worshiped together with the Father and the Son, the Spirit fills our very being with that Life. He bestows gifts upon the Church and fruits upon its members. He fills us with life-giving grace, leading us from a state of bondage to one of genuine freedom.
If He can thus bestow on us that life-giving freedom, it is only because He Himself is the source and embodiment of perfect freedom, of divine Freedom, in which we—miracle of miracles—are invited to take part.