Breath is life. A parishioner collapsed during a recent Sunday Mass in Newtown. A nurse in the congregation pinched his nose and breathed into his mouth while another nurse pushed up and down on his chest. We saw life return.
It all happened during the Creed when we were about to pray, ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.’
In the gospel for Pentecost Sunday we heard proclaimed that Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20). Who is this Spirit, this giver of life?
Tracing the life-giving Spirit through scripture
In the Book of Genesis we learn that God’s creative Spirit was at work bringing new life from the very beginning (1:1-2). The underlying meaning of the Hebrew word for Spirit (ruah) is wind, air, breath or movement of air. Ruah is the life principle.
In the first creation story, a mighty wind swept over the waters beginning God’s creative action. In the second creation story, the first human, fashioned from mud, becomes a living being by God blowing the ‘breath of life’ into the creature’s nostrils (2:7).
Job, too, speaks of having the breath of life in him (27:3) and animals share this principle of life (Gen 6:17; 7:15, 22). The Spirit both creates and sustains life as Job reminds us:
For the Spirit of God has made me,
the breath of the Almighty keeps me alive
This same dynamic, life-giving Spirit came upon the judges of Israel (cf Judg 3:10), upon the kings of Israel (cf 1 Sam 16:13), upon obscure individuals and made them into prophets of God (cf Isaiah 61:1), bearers of life for others. No one then, or now, could hide:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
From your presence where can I flee?
The psalmist reminds us, too, that it is God who is the giver of the Spirit
If you take away their breath, oh Lord,
they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit they live.
You renew the face of the earth.
The Spirit’s work of bringing newness and life continues in the New Testament. In Luke’s account of the Annunciation the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary in the same way as the Spirit hovered over the waters at creation (1:35). Later, having experienced the Holy Spirit descending on him (3:22), Jesus claims that he has been anointed by the Spirit to announce the good news, that is, to bring the breath of life to the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-22).
This same Spirit is poured out on all of us, not just on some. This means we are all called to respond, to be the breath of life for others. We have that wonderful passage in Acts (2:14-21) where Peter quotes from the prophet Joel (2:28):
‘It will come to pass in the last days,’ God says,
‘that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh.
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your young men shall see visions,
your old men shall dream dreams.
Indeed, upon my servants and my handmaids
I will pour out a portion of my spirit in those days,
and they shall prophesy.’
No one element in the Church has a monopoly on the Spirit. We cannot control the divine energy, for we are told:
The Spirit blows where it wills, (John 3:8).
And this Spirit, sent by the risen Lord to fill the earth with God’s power, is with us always. Furthermore, the Spirit is actually in us, not outside us:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.
But if the Spirit truly has come, if we really are all filled with the Spirit, filled with the giver of life, why are there so many signs to the contrary? Why does our world so often seem to be filled with overwhelming violence and hatred? Is the face of the earth really being renewed?
The way the Spirit acts to bring about newness is through human agency – through you and me.
We are called to bring new life to others in countless ways, to be the ‘breath of life’ for them.
The world is charged not only with God’s grandeur but with divine energy pulsing through us.
The Spirit, through us, can work wonders and bring new life to various relationships if only we would say ‘yes’ to the Spirit’s promptings.
The life-giving Spirit can effect more than we can ever hope or imagine in our parish communities, neighbourhoods, workplaces and homes.
The signs of the Spirit are, as Paul reminds us, ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23).
If we are overwhelmed by signs to the contrary then perhaps we’ve stopped breathing. Who will be the breath of life for us?