Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Breath of God

I was recently asked a question: "What's new about Pentecost?" Today, Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate a great event--the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles who were gathered in prayer, as tradition has it, in "the upper room" in Jerusalem. Mary had already experienced the overshadowing the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation. When Jesus appeared to the Apostles on Easter night, as we hear in today's Gospel (John 20: 19-23), "he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" Obviously Pentecost was not the first appearance of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit was present from the beginning of creation and throughout the history of Israel.

The first verses of Genesis are: "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters." That's the New American Bible translation. The Jerusalem Bible is a bit different and identifies the wind that "swept over the waters" as the Spirit: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God's spirit hovered over the water." It was the Spirit--God's wind, God's breath--that brought order to what was a "formless void": "By the Lord's word the heavens were made; by the breath of his mouth all their hosts" (Psalm 33: 6).

The Spirit of God helped Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and govern them wisely. When the work became too much for one person, God shared his Spirit with seventy elders (see Numbers 11: 16-25), including two whose names were on the list of those chosen to help Moses but who were not present for the ceremony. When Joshua tried to stop them, Moses replied, "Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!" (11: 29). The Spirit even came upon an enemy of Israel--Balaam--who was commissioned to curse them but instead, after "the spirit of God came upon him," blessed them (Numbers 24: 1-13).

This Spirit raised up others leaders for God's Chosen People--the Judges--and empowered them with gifts to lead the people in God's ways. Thus, we have Othniel, about whom is written: "The spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel" (Judges 3: 10). The Spirit also "enveloped" Gideon (Judges 6: 34), "came upon Jephthah" (Judges 11: 29), and "stirred" the long-haired Samson (Judges 13: 25).

After the time of the Judges, the Spirit of God came upon the Kings the Israel and the Prophets. The Spirit of God "rushed upon" Saul (1 Samuel 10: 10; 11: 6) and then, after Saul sinned and refused to follow the Spirit's direction, the prophet Samuel anointed David and "the spirit of the Lord rushed upon" him (1 Samuel 16: 13).

Isaiah, in words that Jesus used at the beginning of his teaching ministry, declared: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me" (61: 1). The Prophet Micah said: "I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, with authority and with might" (3: 8). When Ezekiel was called, it was the Spirit who "entered" him (2: 2) and "lifted" him up (3: 12) and "seized" him so that he went forth "spiritually stirred" (3: 14). The Prophet Joel, echoing the desire of Moses that all would have the prophetic spirit, anticipated an outpouring of God's Spirit with these words: "I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; Even upon the servants and the handmaids, in those days, I will pour out my spirit" (3: 1-2).

From this brief survey it's clear that the Spirit of God was at work in creation and in the lives of people from the beginning. What's so special, then, about Pentecost?

The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost in a new way to make people a dwelling place and to transform them into true children of God. Through baptism in "water and Spirit" (John 3: 5), each Christian becomes "the temple of God" in whom "the Spirit of God dwells" (1 Corinthians 3: 16). Through baptism we "received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry Abba, 'Father!' The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8: 15-16).

The word "spirit" comes the Latin "spiritus" which comes from the Latin verb "spirare" meaning "to breathe" or "to blow." The Holy Spirit is God's Breath blown into each Christian giving him or her supernatural life. As our natural breath is essential for our body's life, so the Breath of God is essential for our soul's life, for the life that will continue after our natural breath leaves our body.

A good prayer practice involves praying with your breath. This can be especially helpful during times of anxiety or stress. On a purely natural level, it helps the body to relax by taking deep breaths. So why not make those deep breaths a prayer? As you breathe in, imagine God breathing the Holy Spirit into you. Hold the breath and imagine the Holy Spirit filling you with life and strength and all the spiritual gifts you need at that particular time. Then breathe out, sending the Holy Spirit upon the people or situations that are causing you fear and anxiety, anger and resentment.

After teaching his disciples the prayer we know today as the "Our Father," Jesus spoke to them (and to us) about prayer. He said: "If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?" (Luke 11: 13). In saying this Jesus reminds us that we are beloved children of God our Father and that the best gift we can receive is the Holy Spirit. All other gifts pale in comparison. This is why we join our voices with Christians everywhere praying "Come Holy Spirit!" The Holy Spirit has come but we tend to forget the Gift we've been given. We tend to lose our awareness and appreciation of the Gift of God given to the Church at Pentecost and to each of us at baptism. With our celebration of Pentecost we are reminded that God is as close to us as our breath, and just as essential for life, true life.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post Fr. Jim! I never would have questioned the necessity of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost based on the previous scripture readings. This makes so much sense! How wonderful to know that my soul is alive with the breath of God! I also like your practical advice about breathing in the Holy Spirit and then breathing out upon the situation that is causing stress. Very helpful!