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The following is adapted from an address delivered at a baptismal service on April 21, 2018.
We live in an anxious time. The English poet W.H. Auden called ours the Age of Anxiety, and I think he was right. In my experience, and there’s some survey data to suggest I’m in the ballpark, almost half of us now have personal experience with serious anxiety. The rest of us are guaranteed to love someone with anxiety. We are an anxious lot, we moderns.
We worry, we dread, we fear. We can’t find a place of quiet. We seem to be deaf to the advice Christ gave his followers: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6: 34). I like the way the Anglican scholar Tom Wright translates this passage in his Kingdom New Testament. He gets right at the meat of the Christian message: “don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow can worry about itself. One day’s trouble at a time is quite enough.” I love that British “quite.” It’s the perfect adverb here.
We have a hard time following this advice, however right and wise it is. We seem ever occupied with living an imagined tomorrow today. We cannot wait with God to see what will come, we must believe that it has already come and that it was terrible. In doing so, we have displaced emotions from their proper place in time; we are forcing ourselves to fear and mourn what has not yet occurred. We are confused, often to our detriment.
But we must be careful not to heap the depressive’s self-hatred on top of anxiety, blaming ourselves for the fact that we don’t heed Christ’s instructions to live in God’s abundant present. Condemning ourselves for our anxiety can be a vicious and disorienting cycle. As opposed to focusing our attention on ourselves and our failings, though, God tells us that life in the Spirit can interrupt that cycle. The sacred ritual, the bestowal of the Gift of the Holy Ghost, that will take place tomorrow morning begins to place us firmly in such a life in the Spirit. That is, I think, what we mean by confirmation.
This does not mean that after the receipt of the Gift of the Holy Ghost, we will never feel anxious again. The Gift of the Holy Ghost is not a medical cure for anxiety. Many of us continue to struggle with anxiety long after our confirmation. This ordinance is not a pill; it’s not a supernaturalized electro-shock therapy. Some medical treatments for anxiety work well, and we should embrace them when they do. But the Gift of the Holy Ghost, the sacred act that confirms our roles as vessels for the spirit and grace of God, isn’t primarily concerned with anxiety. That Gift is concerned with our lives and loves as they spread across eternity.
The Gift of the Holy Ghost is about relationships; it draws us into communion with God and other people. It gives us the strength and confidence to share our lives. As we pursue that sacred life of love, we find our minds and souls slowly, often imperceptibly, brought into alignment with God, with others, with the cosmos. We begin to realize that much of our anxiety is a useless response to things that are of no moment. We come to see that this shrill fear, drowning out the grand harmonies of God’s symphony, is not the point. It’s not even about the point. There is more to the world and to us than the catalogue of our fears. When we give the Holy Ghost freedom to fill our souls, we allow God to fill the world with glorious music. We become God’s instruments.
God knows that we will face troubles in life, that we will face anxiety and dread. That is, alas, unavoidable in our experience as mortal beings. God also knows that we will be hungry for God’s presence and that anxiety can call our souls to see through the world of woes. This, I suspect, is one reason that we call the Holy Ghost the “Comforter,” following the language of the King James Bible. The word translates a Greek term, parakletos, which means an advocate, perhaps something like a defense attorney. Someone who helps us put our best foot forward and steer us along a difficult and unfamiliar path. Drawing on that image, I like to think that the Holy Ghost helps make sense of us to God and to ourselves. In our occasional agonies and in our perpetual worries, this Comforter holds out the possibility that all will ultimately be well, that deep sense can be made of our mortal experiences. That the future, the eternity of futures, is glorious rather than merely terrifying.
The Holy Ghost leads us to life in Christ. There is solace there, because we do not really belong anywhere else. And there we are filled with the greatest meanings of the world and its aftermaths. There, in Christ, we are comforted by a comfort that infiltrates the entire world. This is the Gift of the Holy Ghost. This is the fate that we weary and worried stagger toward, sustained by Christ and the community of Saints.