In the Gospel reading for today, the 25th day of the Egyptian month of Babah, we read the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, recorded in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of St John…
23, 24 And in that day you shall ask Me nothing. Truly, truly, I say unto you, If you shall ask anything of the Father, He will give it you in My Name. Until now you have asked nothing in My Name: ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be fulfilled.
Sometimes this passage is taken as meaning that a Christian can ask for whatever they want and God will grant it. This is especially found in the teachings of the modern Prosperity Gospel, which promises health and worldly success to those who have the sort of faith they encourage. But this is no part of the authentic and Apostolic Orthodox Gospel, which even today leads men, women and children of true faith in Christ, to abandon all, even life itself, for the sake of Christ in poverty and under the burden of persecution of many kinds, even in martyrdom itself.
Yet, the Lord Jesus does promise that the Father will give what we ask for. And throughout the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the Father as one who gives generously to his children. I believe that we understand this passage correctly when we read it in the whole context of the spiritual life which is offered us in Christ, and with the words of the Fathers instructing us.
St Cyril writes about this passage. It is interesting that while we tend to think of asking in terms of material goods, St Cyril doesn’t understand it in this way at all. He begins by putting it into the context of the Christian life. He says…
He says that His holy disciples will increase in wisdom and knowledge when they should be clothed with power from on high according to the Scripture, and with their minds illumined by the torchlight of the Spirit should be able to conceive all wisdom, even though they asked no question of Him Who was no longer present with them in the flesh.
Who is the person about whom Christ is speaking? Who is the one who will ask of the Father and will receive? It is, in the first instance, the one who has increased in wisdom and knowledge, and it is the one who has been clothed with power from on high. More than that, it is the one who has their mind illumined by the torchlight of the Spirit. This power from on high is the Holy Spirit, who is the bright and illuminating light which fills the mind and brings a divine wisdom. We should not imagine that we become such a person overnight, but as with all of our spiritual experience, God offers more than we could ask or imagine, and slowly, and with great effort on our part, and much grace on the part of God, we experience more and more what God desires for us. The one who is illuminated and moved by the power from on high, the Holy Spirit, will ask and will receive. But for many of us, for most of us, this is a slowly developing experience in the participation of the life of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and as we are weak in many things, so we discover that even in the asking of the Father we do not begin by asking and acting in a spiritual manner, in accordance with the illuminating power from on high.
St Cyril continues…
The Saviour does not indeed say this because they will have no more need of light from Him, but because when they had received His own Spirit, and had Him indwelling in their hearts, they would have in their minds no lack of every good thing, and would be fulfilled with the most perfect knowledge. And by perfect knowledge we mean that which is correct and incapable of error, and which cannot endure to think or say any evil thing, and which has a right belief concerning the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity.
We do not receive from the Holy Spirit because we no longer receive anything from Christ, but because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, as he is the Spirit of the Father. He dwells in our heart, if we have received him in baptism and chrismation. He dwells entirely in our heart, even the least of us all, but we receive from him only so far as we unite ourselves to his divine power and light. He provides the opportunity for us to lack no good thing in our minds and to have perfect knowledge. But this perfect knowledge is not a knowledge about things, but a participation in the life of God by the indwelling Holy Spirit, leading to both holiness of heart and mind, and the experience of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit dwells personally within each of us, and is the giver of all that the Father wishes us to receive. He is already the gift of the Father in Christ to us.
Of course the Holy Spirit does not have the same relation to us as he has with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ himself, one with him in the co-essential Holy Trinity. He dwells in us according to his grace and love, and not according to nature and hypostasis. But St Cyril is clear, we receive the Holy Spirit and he dwells in our hearts.
Finally, St Cyril links the thought of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the illuminator and power from on high, to the teaching about asking the Father.
For if we see now in a mirror darkly, and we know in part, still while we wander not astray from the doctrines of the truth but adhere to the spirit of the holy and inspired writings, the knowledge that we have is not imperfect, a knowledge which no man can acquire save by the light of the Holy Spirit given unto him. Hereby he exhorts the disciples to pray for spiritual graces, and at the same time gives them this encouragement—-that what they ask they will not fail to obtain.
It seems to me that St Cyril is first of all indicating that we are always in a provisional state, even with the indwelling Holy Spirit. We do not see everything clearly and we do not know everything comprehensively. But in this state, St Cyril is saying that it is the Holy Spirit who grants us a true and perfect knowledge, even if it is in part. That which we learn from the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind as a gift of the Spirit, is true, and it is by the Holy Spirit alone that we gain a greater understanding and a more perfect knowledge.
What must we do, to increase in this knowledge and understanding? It is that we must not wander away from the Orthodox doctrines taught in the Church by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is that we must hold fast to the teaching of the Church in the writings of the Scriptures. And finally, that we must pray for more grace, for a deeper experience of the spiritual life in union with the indwelling Holy Spirit, since the understanding and knowledge we seek, participation in the life of the Holy Spirit, is only received as a gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts.
This is what we must ask of the Father, and it is this which we can be sure he will give to us, spiritual grace, wisdom and understanding, life in the Holy Spirit and illumination of the mind. The one who is growing in grace and life of the indwelling Holy Spirit has already received such gifts in part, and having received in part, desires only to receive more and to the fulness, united perfectly with the indwelling Holy Spirit, who is our own life and strength.