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The breath of God

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Given today’s COVID-19 context, it might seem odd that Jesus breathes on his disciples in our Gospel for Pentecost Sunday. In John 20:19-23, Jesus appears to his disciples gathered in the upper room, proving that he is risen from the dead and giving them peace. He also gives them a commission, "as my Father has sent me, so I send you." But then comes the gift that enables the mission: He breaths on them and gives them a share in the Holy Spirit, through which they have the power to forgive sins.

One might wonder in today’s world: Is the "breathing" part important? Why not simply just tell them from a respectable distance? Yet, the receiving of the Holy Spirit in this way stresses several key points:

First, we note that God chooses to work through physical means and signs to impart grace. This is foundational for our faith in the Sacraments. Yes, God could save us apart from physical things, but again and again Jesus chooses specifically to use material things to communicate his life. This is in part because, as human beings, we’re both body and soul. So, it’s fitting that our salvation isn’t just for our soul, but for our body as well, and therefore comes to us through bodily signs such as breathing.

Second, think of how this moment calls to mind the creation of Adam in the book of Genesis. How does God make Adam therein? From the dirt, but then he breathes his own life into him. This sets Adam and Eve apart from all the other animals as living beings in God’s image and likeness. Yet, there is a parallel here for us as well. Just as God’s breath gave natural life to our first parents, so to does the gift of the Holy Spirit give us supernatural life in Christ. The first gift of breath raised man above the animals. At Pentecost, by the breath and grace of the Holy Spirit, we’re raised above the angels to a share in God’s own life.

Third, we can remember St. Augustine’s famous teaching about the connection between the breath that is the Holy Spirit and the Word that is Jesus Christ. Consider how our words are conveyed: By our breath. We speak by moving the air, and our word is made present by that breath. We communicate ourselves that way. We make ourselves present to others that way. The same is true here. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the Holy Spirit is the breath who makes the Word present. In a sense, by breathing on the disciples and giving them the Holy Spirit, Jesus is communicating himself and giving himself along with the Spirit to his disciples. By this act, God comes to dwell in them in a unique way. They now receive the breath of God and the Word of God, and are thus able to perform the ministry of God — forgiving sins. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit makes us able to do the works of God.

In sum: by the gift of the breath of the Holy Spirit, we too are made Temples of the Holy Spirit, we too live in Christ. We are made new creations. This cannot be overstated. So often in Christian life, we need the reminder that God dwells in us and acts in us, empowering and enlivening our choices and actions to make holiness possible. When the life of virtue and grace seems difficult or impossible, we should remind ourselves that we’re not alone: that God truly is present in our body and soul, making us alive with the very life of God. Come Holy Spirit, guide our thoughts and actions to make us saints.

Fr. Miserendino is parochial vicar of St. Bernadette Church in Springfield. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021