The Holy Spirit and the Liturgical Year

I recently heard a lecture from Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley in which she argued for a non-linear approach to Trinitarian theology in order to free-up our pneumatology. The lecture developed some of the work she does in the first volume of her systematic theology, God, Sexuality, and the Self. The filioque debates, she argues, are wrongheaded insofar as they are stuck—in either case—with the Holy Spirit as merely a “third.” To use Coakley’s words, “a privileged dyad of Father-Son is already established, and…the Spirit somehow has to be fitted in thereafter” (330). Our theology does not do justice to the ways in which the Spirit is not only eternal, but primordially active in drawing us to the experience of God. Eastern insistence on a Father arche and Western insistence on procession from the Son both underplay this point. Again, Coakley herself:

What we discover in the adventure of prayer… is a gentle but all-consuming Spirit-led ‘procession’ into the glory of the Passion and Resurrection, a royal road to a ‘Fatherhood’ beyond patriarchalism. And thus, if then asked to pronounce on ‘procession’ in the Godhead, I can only start with the Spirit’s invitation into that Godhead. Thus I start with the presumption of the Spirit’s mutual infusion in Son and Father…. There can be in God’s trinitarian ontology no Sonship which is not eternally ‘sourced’ by ‘Father’ in the Spirit. (332)

Luke’s narrative of the Annunciation names the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). We are liturgically so-reminded in the second article of the creed, when we pray “he came down from heaven, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

Yet, our liturgical practice—drawing upon part II of Luke’s narrative, the Book of Acts—celebrates the Holy Spirit primarily on the Solemnity of Pentecost. When the disciples are gathered after the Ascension, this is the coming of the Spirit, Christ’s Spirit, upon the Church. It strikes me that, especially with the Marian-ecclesiological connection embraced in Lumen Gentium, one could argue that the Holy Spirit comes upon the Lucan Church at the Annunciation. I admit to not having thought this inclination all the way through, but I am interested neither in defining any one particular moment at which the Sprit comes nor in drawing us back into old debates about Lucan and Johannine pneumatologies.

Rather—holding true to my title!—the question here concerns the liturgical calendar. The Solemnity of the Annunciation is, in emphasis, a Marian feast and, of course, a celebration of the Incarnation. The Holy Spirit takes a back seat. Instead of laboring your eyes with a plethora of examples from the Missal, here are the collects from both solemnities side-by-side:

First, from the Annunciation,

O God, who willed that your Word
should take on the reality of human flesh
in the womb of the Virgin Mary,
grant, we pray,
that we, who confess our Redeemer to be God and man,
may merit to become partakers even in his divine nature.

Next from Pentecost,

O God, who by the mystery of today’s great feast
sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation,
pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit
across the face of the earth
and, with the divine grace that was at work
when the Gospel was first proclaimed,
fill now once more the hearts of believers.

Clearly, Pentecost takes the pneumatological cake. As one whose work has made much of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost and its liturgical significance, I ask, dear Pray Tell readers, do you find Coakley’s critique of “linear” approaches to the Trinity applicable to the liturgical calendar? If so, what might we do about it? Are there other aspects of the liturgical cycle worth considering here?


  1. I’m fond of saying that Western Christianity has a flabby pneumatology all around. One thing that used to drive me crazy about the alternative opening prayers in the Sacramentary was their constant omission of the Spirit in the concluding formula.
    The “linear” trinitarian issue is, I think, on target – and it’s been supported by much visual representation in Western Christianity as well. There is often a clearly delineated hierarchy of persons – with Christ at the center, and the Father above, and the Spirit literally beneath that privileged dyad.
    Musically, I like to point out that Roman Catholics sing to Mary more than we sing to (or of) the Spirit. It didn’t surprise me much several years ago when one of our contemporary composers sent in a psalm setting, with a “doxological” verse to the Father, Son, and Mary.
    In regard to the liturgical calendar, of course any feast with a Gospel from the Lucan narrative – the Visitation, when the kicking of John the Baptist fills Elizabeth with the Spirit – has a strong Spirit dimension.
    I think that one of the larger ways we can address this issue is to work toward a stronger awareness of the Spirit as the actuator of all our prayer and the sacraments, the one who gathers us as the Body of Christ at every liturgy and feast. It’s a good way to tie into the model of the Trinity as relationship – the relationship that the Spirit continually draws us into.
    Gertrude Stein probably wasn’t intending to be a liturgical theologian when she wrote of “The Bird who is Third” but she was on to something.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Fair point, Lee and Karl. Thanks for it. Indeed officially this is the case–a celebration of the Incarnation. The broader point stands, I think, that Pentecost is the feast of the Holy Spirit and Annunciation not. Coakley’s point is that we do not do a good enough job–theologically and liturgically–of emphasizing the Spirit’s role in “sourcing” divine sonship.

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