When I was a child, the Holy Spirit entered my life only during school exams. Like most Catholic kids, I was taught to pray fervently to the Spirit before every test, trusting He'd help me remember what I'd studied.
Such a practice probably was harmless at the time, but it certainly created problems later. As I grew and changed, my need of the Spirit didn't grow and change. When exams stopped, my need of the Spirit stopped.
Those who share my experience of the Spirit will find it hard to understand the theology we're going to hear proclaimed in the liturgical readings over the next few weeks. The authors will be speaking about someone we don't need, a person who conjures up childhood memories but is irrelevant to our present life.
If we listen carefully to those readings, we'll discover that our Sacred authors never encourage anyone to pray to the Spirit before and during exams. They regard the Holy Spirit as essential for those who follow Jesus, but for reasons which have nothing to do with school. For them, the Spirit is a multi-faceted force, always being looked at and described from different angles by people who continually find themselves trying to imitate Jesus in diverse, changing situations.
The second reading (I Peter 3:15-18) gives us one reason why the Spirit is so important. "Keep your conscience clear," the author writes, "so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering is God's will, then to suffer for doing evil."
Though everyone agrees with this general statement, we find great diversity when we ask for a definition of what makes a specific action good or bad. What I judge good, you might judge evil. What I judge to be "in Christ," you might judge to be "outside Christ."
The early Church had the same problem. Its members presumed they were carrying on Jesus' ministry. But the Jesus they imitated wasn't some religious guru who during his life had laid down specific principles of behavior he expected his followers to implement after his death. Jesus wasn't a dead, revered teacher; He was still alive, living in the midst of His disciples. And one way He expected them to keep Him alive was by responding to questions and situations the historical Jesus never faced. Most Scripture scholars agree, for instance, that the issue of paying the half-shekel temple tax in Matthew 17 could only have emerged after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, 40 years after Jesus' death and resurrection!
When Christians asked, "What does the risen Jesus do in this set of circumstances?" they relied on the Holy Spirit to give them the answer.
Of course, as John's Jesus reminds us in the gospel (Jn 14:15-21), He expects His followers to show their love of Him by keeping His commandments. Just as we were taught that the Holy spirit couldn't help anyone who hadn't studied, so knowing and carrying out what Jesus commanded is a prerequisite for receiving that "other Advocate," the one who will "be with you forever, that Spirit of truth whom the world can never receive since it neither sees nor knows Him; but you have Him, because He is with you, He is in you."
Further along His last Supper discourse, Jesus says that His Spirit is to guide us beyond what He said and did historically, to the point of facing and responding to "the many things" which He had yet to say, things which His original followers could not "bear to hear."
This seems to be why Luke (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17) makes an issue of Philip baptizing Samaritans "only in the name of Jesus," prompting the Jerusalem apostles to send Peter and John to finish the job. Though Philip had seen to it that people's "unclean spirits came shrieking out of them," he hadn't seen to it that "the Holy Spirit came down on any of them." How could they live as Christ if they hadn't received Christ's Spirit?
Perhaps one reason we have so little need of the Spirit today is because, in the middle of all our Catholic education, some of us didn't hear an essential Christian truth: Jesus expects us to be other Christs!