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. Read more