Then the LORD God formed man from the dust
of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the
breath of life; and the man became a living being.
When he had said this, he breathed on them and
said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
You who pour mercy into hell, sole authority in the
highest and lowest worlds, let your anger disperse
the mist in this aimless place, where even my sins
fall short of the mark… Arouse my heart again with
the limitless breath you breathe into me, arouse the
secret from obscurity.
Leonard Cohen, The Book of Mercy
Pentecost, with its attention to the life-giving breath of God, seems especially poignant this year, with the world immersed in a pandemic caused by a virus that takes away breath and, tragically often, life. In spite of assurances that the worst may be over, many of us continue to live day-to-day with simmering anxiety that threatens periodically to boil over into full-blown dread, that we or someone we love will become sick and perhaps even die. One of the most fearsome things about the virus is the way it attacks the respiratory system, making it difficult for the lungs to oxygenate blood. Inadequate blood oxygen causes faster and deeper breathing, which causes changes in blood chemistry that lead, among other things, to panic. The name for this response and the terror it causes is “air hunger,” and anyone who has had a serious asthma attack has experienced at least a measure of it. It is a dreadful thing to watch, much less experience.
It’s small wonder, then, that we are so anxious, for breath is essential to life. This is as much a theological claim as a physiological one; Creation is animated by the breath of God, and the breath that sustains the life of every creature has God as its first cause. Just so, the lectionary for this Pentecost reminds us that God’s ultimate intention, both for us and for the rest of God’s beloved Creation, is not sickness and death but healing and wholeness, given freely in the limitlessly merciful and limitlessly powerful breath of God.
As is frequently the case, the collected texts of the lectionary for this Pentecost suggest a central theme in the history of salvation, what Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lyons (130-202), called recapitulation. To recapitulate something is to repeat or restate it; it is also to gather together or unite things into a cohesive, orderly whole. As a theological trope, recapitulation draws on both of these senses. It is first of all, and primarily, the notion that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God recapitulates his intention for Creation, and for humankind in particular. In his faithful embodiment of God’s love, which included refusing to respond violently to those who executed him, Jesus got right what generations of sons and daughters of Adam had through selfishness, exploitation, and violence gotten wrong.
In giving the Holy Spirit, God empowers humankind, beginning with the ekklesía, to follow the example of Jesus and participate in God’s work to heal Creation. In this healing, the original peace of Creation is restored as the scattered membership is healed of its mutual suspicion and hostility. These themes show up in a few places this week, and they are connected by allusions to breath, air, or wind.
The designated Psalm, an excerpt from Psalm 104, is a hymn of praise to God, inspired by the Psalmist’s wonder at the rich and lovely diversity of Creation, which is sustained moment-by-moment by the life-giving presence – specifically the breath – of God. The Psalmist writes, beginning in verse 27, that “these all look to you / to give them their food in due season / when you give it to them, they gather it up; / when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. / When you hide your face, they are dismayed; / when you take away your breath, they die / and return to their dust. / When you send forth your spirit, they are created / and you renew the face of the ground.” These verses clearly echo the Creation stories in Genesis, particularly Genesis 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” The gift of breath is the gift of life.
We find echoes of the Psalm and its allusions to the Creation stories, both in the gospel lesson and the traditional account of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts. It has long been common to refer to Pentecost as the birth of the church (the ekklesía); a less frequently made reference is to Pentecost as the first-fruits of the new Creation. In the gospel (John 20:22), there is a clear echo of Genesis 2:7 when the risen Christ appears to the disciples, breathes on them, and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”; just as the first human,a-adamH Ha’adam, received life from the breath of God, the disciples and those to whom they were sent received new life from the breath of the risen Christ.
Although allusions to the Creation story are less obvious in the second chapter of Acts, there remains a thematic parallelism; when the divine wind rushes through the room where the disciples are praying, they receive the Holy Spirit, which enables them to speak of God’s mighty acts in the several languages of the Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from throughout the Near East and Mediterranean basin. The pilgrims’ ability to understand the prophesying of the provincial Galilean disciples signifies the healing of the wound of Babel through the coming restoration of the human family, beginning with the establishment of the ekklesía, the body of Christ. Just as God brings about the well-ordered, richly diverse, very good Creation from primeval chaos, the initial noisy, confusing, mistaken-for-drunkenness chaos of Pentecost yields the body of Christ, itself richly diverse, very good, and in its way, well-ordered.
The Spirit-induced unity of the body of Christ is not a flattening into homogeneity, but a celebration of difference that recognizes that while every person (and indeed, every part of Creation) is in some sense an icon of the Creator, made in God’s image and likeness, no one person or group of people images God as fully as the peaceable whole of a diverse humanity. This is at least part of what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 12: while there are varieties of gifts, services, and activities among the membership of Christ’s body, all are given by the same Holy Spirit for the common good, both of the church and the entire Creation. As Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
In a time like our own, pervaded at once by deep anxiety about a disease that deprives its victims of life-giving breath and by resistance to and angry defiance of the limits imposed on us because of this disease, we may be helped by the lessons the designated texts for this Pentecost Sunday, remembering that our lives belong not simply to ourselves, but to the God whose breath has given us life. The Spirit who gives new life does so not simply for our personal good, but for the common good of all humanity and all Creation. Our own breath is made sacred by the Spirit; we would do well to consider how it might be deployed in our respective places for the good of those places and our neighbors who inhabit them.