Beckett: Review – The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus

Author: Raniero Cantalamessa
Publisher: Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1986
Rating: 5/5 stars


What was the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? And by extension of this, what is the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of the church and her individual members as those people who become participants in Jesus’ Baptism by virtue of their own Baptism?

In this brief book, Father Raniero Cantalamessa gives a surprisingly helpful detailed account of the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of Christ and His church despite the book’s brevity. Beginning with Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, Father Cantalamessa walks you through the Spirit’s work in the life of Jesus in His kingly, prophetic, and priestly anointing and, furthermore, how the Spirit’s work continues in the life of the church as sharers in Christ’s anointing.

Why Was Jesus Baptised?

Cantalamessa’s book is one that contributes to the study of Spirit Christology. It is clear that the Holy Spirit plays a significant role in the life of Jesus, yet to what extent does the Holy Spirit play a role in Jesus’ life? Furthermore, what does this mean for the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives since Jesus is the receiver, bearer, and giver of the Holy Spirit?

To be sure, Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit since His incarnation, yet something clearly happens to Him at His Baptism in the Jordan River. What is so significant about this event in Jesus’ life? “And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove” (Mark 1:10). Jesus has had the Spirit since His incarnation, so in what sense can the Spirit descend upon Jesus?

Drawing from the Church Fathers, Cantalamessa puts forth the notion that the anointing of Jesus at His Baptism inaugurated His Messianic mission. Jesus has always been the Christ (the Messiah) since His incarnation, but here, His “Christness”—His Messianic identity—is made public and He begins His mission as the Messiah. To put it another way, no change occurs in any of Jesus’ two natures (divine and human). The point of His Baptism was not to change Him but to change us. Cantalamessa writes:

Jesus’ baptism in other words is important and efficacious for us, but not for him… Jesus was baptized so as to bury all the old Adam in the waters and to sanctify the Jordan, so that, just as he was flesh and Spirit, so he would bring us to salvation by water and the Spirit; coming up out of the water, he carries the world up with him; he sees paradise opening, which Adam had closed, while the Spirit attests his divinity. (pp. 8-9)

This is why we can properly say we participate in Jesus’ Baptism in our own Baptisms. By resting on Jesus’ human nature while also validating His Messianic identity and mission, the Holy Spirit can now rest in our human nature. Paraphrasing St. Irenaeus, Cantalamessa writes, “Through Jesus, the Spirit is able to make grace ‘take root’ in human nature; in Jesus who has not sinned, the Spirit can ‘come down and remain’ (John 1:33), and get used to staying among us, unlike in the Old Testament where his presence in the world was only occasional” (14). As a result, the perfume of the Holy Spirit covers the stink of our sins.

In short, Cantalamessa’s primary thesis can be summarised as follows: The Holy Spirit came to rest on Jesus in His Baptism so that by the virtue of His human and divine natures, Jesus might give us the Holy Spirit to indwell our human natures. Jesus’ receiving the Holy Spirit was not for His own benefit, but for ours.

Cantalamessa spends the remainder of the book detailing Jesus’ anointing according to His kingly, prophetic, and priestly mission. He writes, “In the struggle with the devil, Jesus fulfills his kingly mission, in that he overthrows the kingdom of Satan and establishes the kingdom of God… [H]is prophetic mission unfolds in evangelizing the poor; and his priestly mission is seen in his praying to the Father with inexpressible groans” (22). I would add to Jesus’ priestly mission that it is culminated in His sacrifice on the cross.

Jesus’ Kingly Anointing

In all of these missional functions in which Jesus did the will of His Father comes the church’s work as well in similar fashions. The first of these is Jesus’ kingly anointing, clearly seen in His temptation in the wilderness, which Cantalamessa summarises, “Jesus frees himself from Satan, to free everyone from Satan” (23). I appreciate how he connects this to the church:

The Book of Revelation gives a kind of scenic representation of this new situation: the devil (the Dragon), not having managed to devour the Son (Jesus), full of rage, hurls itself at the Woman who gave birth to the Son, forcing her to flee into the wilderness (cf. Rev 12:13-14). The Church (the Woman) too is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil! It could not be said more clearly: after Jesus, the struggle against Satan goes on, inside the Church, against the Church. Also, this struggle has become more relentless, for now Satan is ‘in great fury,’ since ‘he knows he has but a short time’ (cf. Rev 12:12). (p. 25)

Being tempted by Satan is one way in which Jesus suffered. So, too, the church shall suffer by being tempted by the Devil. The Devil is a real threat the church ought to take seriously. Cantalamessa criticises academia for approaching Satan academically rather than as a real enemy (30). For Cantalamessa, and I agree, the Devil is not an academic antagonist; he is the adversary of Christ and, therefore, the adversary of the church. The unction of the Spirit in the church is constantly battling the unction of the Devil, which is the spirit of the Antichrist.

However, there is no reason to fear the Devil greatly. We ought to take him seriously, but there is no reason for Christians to fear him. “It is required of us that we proclaim in Spirit and in power that Jesus has overcome all powers, and that henceforth he is the one, true Lord and that there is nothing to be afraid of, ‘for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world’ (1 John 4:4)” (35).

Jesus’ Prophetic Anointing

Simply put, Jesus is not merely prophet but the fulfilment of all the Prophets (39). As the fulfilment of all the Prophets, what particularly sets Jesus apart from the Prophets in His prophetic mission is His attitude in His evangelistic mission versus those of the Prophets. The Prophets before Him often complained about the evil surrounding them and the evil being done to them. Jesus’ disposition is entirely different. Cantalamessa writes:

It is certainly a marvelous thing to see Jesus going right ahead, without regrets or second thoughts, consenting to pass—he, the Son of God—from disappointment to disappointment, from rejection to rejection, from obstruction to obstruction… However, he neither assumes the air of a victim, nor disdainfully retires from the fray, as human beings do in similar circumstances; he goes on speaking, agrees to discuss things, never refuses to explain, except when faced with manifest bad faith or hypocrisy. He goes on like this until he dies, evangelizing even on the walk to Calvary, even on the cross… The Spirit therefore urges Jesus on to evangelize, but not only while remaining outside him; he follows him, helps him in the unfolding of the mission, becomes his inseparable companion. (pp. 40-41)

Therefore, because it is true that the Spirit of Jesus whom He gives to the church prompts her to do the things of Jesus, we, too, ought to evangelize in like manner. We ought to say things like: “We might lose our tax exemption? Oh well, that sucks. That’ll make things harder, but the church will live on and continue to proclaim Christ crucified and risen.” The Spirit prompted Jesus not to complain in His prophetic mission. Therefore, the Spirit prompts us not to complain in our kerygmatic mission. Anytime we do complain, we stifle the Spirit and become whiners in our flesh.

A final takeaway from Cantalamessa here is his insight on thinking of kerygma as utilising the double-edged Sword of the Spirit, the Word (Hebrews 4:12). He writes, “…using a sword, or a knife, or any other kind of blade with the flat rather than with the cutting edge or the point will not wound anyone. The Church’s preaching is like this: if we say a thousand things, one of which is ‘Jesus is Lord,’ no one will be ‘cut to the heart,’ as we read happened when Peter proclaimed after Pentecost, ‘You killed Jesus of Nazareth; God has raised him up. Repent!’ (cf. Acts 2:37)” (48). In other words, faithful preaching is not afraid to use the pointy end of the Sword of the Spirit; it is unfaithful preaching that uses the flat edges so that the Word doesn’t wound anybody, that is, cut them to the heart.

This understanding fits neatly in what Rev. Dr. Leopaldo Sánchez says concerning the aim of preaching as theologians of the cross. “Preachers of the cross convict hearers and sinners by showing them that they are oppressors of the Son. If hearers see themselves as such oppressors, then they have been crucified with Christ” (Sánchez, 193). This is the pointy end of the Sword of the Spirit.

Then after the sword-wielding Spirit wounds them after cutting to the joints and marrow of their spirit (Hebrews 4:12) can the preacher bind up their wounds with the elixir of the Gospel. “In Jesus’ name and in his stead, preachers are likewise given the Spirit to proclaim release from the evil one” (Sánchez, 193).

To accomplish this task, therefore, the preacher must be bold. Much of preaching today, even among some Lutheran congregations, is too concerned with offending their hearers so as not to hurt their feelings and be judged as a legalistic preacher. As a result, the hearers receive a cheap gospel and become antinomians. Rather, the Law must do its work in the believer as that soul-dividing Sword of the Spirit in order to move “from convicting hearers of the story to their renewal in Christ” (Sánchez, 193). There is no room for timid preaching; all preaching must be bold.

Jesus’ Priestly Anointing

Lastly, Cantalamessa describes Jesus’ priestly anointing/mission as “the praying Jesus” (Cantalamessa, 51). However, I would extend this by saying Jesus’ priestly anointing is the praying and sacrificing Jesus. However, Cantalamessa does later write, “This prayer and sacrificial offering of himself to the Father reveals the third aspect of the anointing received by Jesus through the Holy Spirit: priestly unction… The priestly unction unfolds in Jesus’ life, in his prayer life, but it culminates in his sacrifice on the cross” (54).

Cantalamessa dedicates this entire section to Jesus’ prayer life, which was an enlightening read. He makes the interesting note that “all the prayers of Jesus attested in the four Gospels… have one feature in common: the use of the invocation ‘Father,’ more precisely… in its Aramaic form of Abbà” (53).

Thus, because we receive the Holy Spirit in our Baptisms that brings us as participants into Christ’s Baptism, we can also cry out, “Abba!” Hence why St. Paul writes, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6).

What I Learnt from Cantalamessa

There are a lot of things I learnt from this concise book, but one thing I enjoyed the most is something concerning pastoral practice. In the last section of his book, Cantalamessa wrote briefly on the pastor’s life of prayer, particularly as he drew from Moses’ example in Exodus 17:8-16He writes, “At the moment when it was a matter of life or death for the entire people and everyone was working their guts out repulsing the Amalekite attack, where was Moses their leader? He was up the mountain with his arms raised in prayer! The others strove with Amalek, he strove with God” (56). This helped my understanding of the pastor as prayerful intercessor both in his personal prayer life and during the liturgy.

During the liturgy, we can easily draw the similarities between the Prayers of the Church during the Divine Service and Moses’ lifting up his hands during the Amalekite battle. During the Prayers of the Church, the pastor’s arms are lifted up to the Lord as he prays on behalf of the church, especially vis-à-vis prayers against the Enemy, the Devil. Having done these prayers many times myself, my arms often get tired just as Moses’ arms got tired! Here, the altar to which the pastor ascends is like the mountain Moses prayed on during the Amalekite battle, only the battle during which the pastor prays is a spiritual one.

Concerning the personal prayer life of the pastor, this little section reminded me of something my vicarage supervisor taught me. When he forgives the sins of a parishioner in private Confession & Absolution, or in a more informal setting where someone asks him to forgive them, in his personal prayer life he turns those sins over to God and forgets about them. Thus, the pastor intercedes for the flock whom God has given him not just publicly, but also privately.

A Criticism

There were some things that created some questions as I read the book, but if there’s one major critique I can lay out is what he calls the Gospel/Good News. He writes that the Gospel has “a restricted meaning” for Jesus: “the kingdom of God is at hand for you, therefore love your enemies; the kingdom of God is at hand for you, therefore if your hand offends you cut it off,” and so on (41). This doesn’t sound like Gospel; this sounds like Law.

Anytime the Word tells you to do something, this is Law. We can certainly say, in one sense, that the Gospel is “the kingdom of God is at hand” insofar as we understand this as meaning, strictly speaking, that we “obtain forgiveness of sins through faith, and are delivered from death and all the punishment of our sins and are saved eternally” (FC SD V, 20). The moment we describe the Gospel as motivation for something we do, e.g. love your enemies, we fall into the realm of law-gospel reductionism. (Rev. Dr. Joel Biermann discusses this problem at length. See his A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics, pages 105-129.)

We could call this result of the Gospel our new obedience, but this new obedience is not the Gospel; it is the Law done right by God’s redeemed and sanctified creatures. The Confessions describe our new obedience as such, “It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace [the Gospel] before God” (AC VI, 1; emphasis mine). The Gospel might produce our new obedience, but our new obedience is not the Gospel.


Sánchez, Leopaldo A. Receiver, Bearer, and Giver of God’s Spirit: Jesus’ Life in the Spirit as a Lens for Theology and Life. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015.

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