The Breath of The One Who Gives Us Life

Pentecost Sunday (C)

(Adapted from a previous post: 2015)

“Breathe gently on her face.” This was the advice my sister gave me many years ago when I could not comfort my inconsolable newborn daughter.

I did what my sister suggested and was as startled by my baby’s response as she apparently was by my breath. Her crying stopped, and she inhaled, deeply. I might have imagined it, but I recall being rewarded with a squishy little newborn smile. Amazing. My breath calmed her.

Any new parent knows that some infants continue to cry even after every possible need has been taken care of. Babies cry. It’s what they do. Unless there is some kind of health problem, newborn crying may just be related to the developing central nervous system; some experts suggest that parents should, on occasion, allow an infant to “cry it out.”

I was convinced that my daughter’s distress was more about her adjustment to life outside my womb, so I carried her in a baby sling wrapped tightly against my chest. Now it seemed that my breath had the ability to calm her as much as the warmth my body and the sound of my heart did.

I later learned that this breathing technique is used in “water babies” swimming classes to teach infants how to take a deep breath and hold it. I’m sure there is a physiological reason for this response, but I believed my ability to calm my newborn daughter with my breath had less to do with science and everything to do with her recognition of me through it.

The breath and its cosmic cousin, wind, have a significant presence in the Bible, and for Christians, no day expresses the power of both more than the feast of Pentecost, the day on which Jesus’ Holy Spirit was poured out onto the disciples.

The Christian Liturgy for the feast of Pentecost includes two distinct accounts of this event: one is dramatic and fiery, and the other is quiet and instructive. In both instances, the disciples were in Jerusalem, together in one place, grieving their beloved friend, Jesus.

The first account comes from the Acts of the Apostles. It takes place after  Jesus’ ascension, seven weeks after the Passover on the festival of Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks, which commemorates Yahweh’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The second account comes from the Gospel of John. It describes the first appearance of the risen Jesus to the group of disciples “on the evening of the first day of the week” following his death. Recall that the grief-stricken, and confused disciples were hiding in fear for their lives after having witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion just days before [John 20:19-23].

In Acts, the appearance of the Holy Spirit is described metaphorically. For example, the disciples experience a noise like a driving wind that filled the house and, what appeared to the disciples to be tongues of fire parting and resting on every person. In John’s Gospel, there is no metaphor. Jesus simply appears. He stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you,” and after showing them his wounds, Jesus breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The symbols of noise, wind, fire and breath would not have escaped the attention of Jesus’ disciples, nor would they have gone over the heads of John’s or Luke’s astute readers. Fire is a Judaic symbol for the Torah, the written law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also, the Rabbinical interpretation of the Moses event describes Yahweh’s voice as looking like a “fiery substance” which then split into seventy languages.[1] Further, a noise like a driving wind recalls the great theophany which announced Yahweh’s appearance to Moses [Exodus 19:16-19]. These shared symbols served as links between the disciples’ Pentecost experience and the Moses event and pointed to the manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit in a new time and place.

Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John’s gospel, although calm and reassuring, has the same powerful effect as the wind and flames in Acts. Jesus breathed on the disciples, and with his breath and accompanying words, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus renewed, reassured, and empowered his disciples to go out in the world, to do what he had done, and to be what he had been.

Recall the second creation story in Genesis where God blows the breath of life (Ruah) into the nostrils of the man:

Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. —Gen 2:7

For Jesus’ disciples, the communities for whom Luke and John wrote, and all Christians ever since, Jesus’ act of breathing mirrors the creation: He gives new life.

In both accounts, the disciples responded with joy and readiness. Acts describes the disciples’ realization of their ability to preach the Good News in a manner that transcends language barriers. They go out and “speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” [Acts 2:4]. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ gift of the Spirit sends the disciples, now renewed and empowered, out in the world to fulfill the mission for which he chose them. With this, the church was born.

The memory of my inconsolable newborn daughter being calmed and reassured by my breath makes me wonder what it felt like for the disciples to have the risen Jesus breathe on them. I wonder what it would be like to have Jesus breathe on me today. I hope that I would recognize him. Do we recognize the breath of the one who gives us new life?

[1] Rabbi Moshe Weissman, author of “The Midrash Says”

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