There is much to say about that seemingly simple act. As a way in, I want to reflect for a minute on what happens when we breathe on each other.
My own immediate associations with being breathed on are not positive.
Mostly people don’t breathe on me these days. But there was a time, not so many years ago, when my children still liked to get close to me. Back then, they used to breathe on me a lot. And they used to get sick a lot. And they used to breathe on me when they were sick. A lot!
Every winter, the same thing happened. I would be holding one or the other of my children on my lap. He would look up into my face with a touching trust and love. And he would cough. A wave of infected breath would wash over my face. All too often, I was inhaling at that moment. His breath would mingle with mine. And, in a few days, I would be sick too.
Of course, it didn’t stop there. If Carrie were not already infected, I would infect her when I, inevitably, breathed on her. If we weren’t careful about covering our mouths, if we inadvertently breathed on others, they would catch it too. And so sickness would ripple out from that single cough, that single breath which had mingled with my own.
That doesn’t happen much anymore. My children no longer get that close even when they are home. As of next fall, I won’t see them at all for weeks at a time, which will be terrible. But not being breathed on quite so much is a silver lining!
I say that as a way of emphasizing the potential power of simply breathing on someone.
Back to Jesus. Jesus’ act of breathing on his disciples was sort of like my children coughing on me. Jesus’ breath mingled with theirs. They caught something from him. And they shared that something with each other and with everyone with whom they came in contact.
It is as if Jesus’ breath carried a powerful infection. But with Jesus, it was a good kind of infection! That good infection is the key to our gospel reading.
In our reading, the risen Lord breathes on his disciples, and he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus links breath and Spirit.
That link between breath and Spirit was already ancient when Jesus breathed on his disciples. It is built into the Hebrew language. A single Hebrew word—Ruach—means breath, and spirit, and also wind.
The biblical authors make much of that linkage, going all the way back to creation itself.
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind—Ruach; breath; Spirit—a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).
God starts creating, bringing order out of chaos, life out of the void. Finally God creates human beings. God “formed man from the dust of the ground, and [God] breathed into [the man’s] nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
God’s Spirit is the creative wind. God’s Spirit is the breath of life. God’s Spirit gives us life.
The story keeps going. We sinned. Death entered the world. Chaos and void loom once again. Creation itself is in peril.
And so Christ comes. Christ comes to restore and renew God’s creation. Christ does what God did at creation. Christ breathes the breath of life into the disciples. It is a new act of creation, helping the disciples to know true life in God, as they were created to do in the first place.
That is what Pentecost is all about: the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God’s breath, that fills us with divine life.
And like the most contagious infection ever, the Holy Spirit is catching, the divine life that Jesus gives to his disciples is catching. Divine life ripples out from Jesus’ breath mingling with the breath of the disciples.
From that first breath of Christ, a mighty wind, a mighty Spirit, has gone forth, spreading across the world, lasting through the centuries. Eventually Christ’s breath from two thousand years ago reaches us. We caught that same divine life. We received the Holy Spirit that Christ gave to his disciples in our gospel reading.
Breathing is a mostly unconscious act. But part of the ancient wisdom of our tradition is that our breath is itself a gift from God. Our every breath in is like a sacrament, as we take in God’s Holy Spirit. Our every breath out can be a prayer as we send it back to God.
We can be intentional about using our breath as prayer. Each morning, after saying Morning Prayer from the Prayerbook, I sit for a few minutes and focus as best I can on my breathing. I breathe in God’s Spirit. I breathe out in thanksgiving. In and out, in and out, over and over again. I lose focus all the time. But then I come back to my breathing and keep going.
That kind of meditative, prayerful sitting and breathing is amazingly powerful. Simply sitting and breathing is calming. Simply sitting and breathing helps us open up to God’s presence.
Over time, using breath as a prayer can become so natural that we do it all the time, whether or not we are making a conscious effort. That is what Paul means when he tells us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). Using our breath as a prayer all the time.
Breathing is part of our worship as well.
When we gather for worship in Christ’s name, he is here with us. The Holy Spirit swirls around us.
And we pray in unison. We recite the creed together. We sing together. And as we do those things, without thinking about it, we pause for breath at the same time. As a result, we are literally breathing together. We are united in Ruach, one in breath, one in Spirit.
The Latin word for breathing together is con-spirare, which is the root of the English word conspire. As we worship, as we breathe together, as we become one in Spirit, we are formed into a conspiracy, a conspiracy of God’s people breathing together God’s Spirit, powerfully “infected” with divine life.
And of course, it does not stop there. We are out to change the world. We are out to infect everyone with the divine life that Jesus breathed into his disciples two thousand years ago, that Jesus breathes into us in an ongoing way, that Jesus commissions us to share with a hurting world.
We receive God’s Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit unites us as the people of God. And by opening ourselves up to God’s Spirit—individually and as a community of faith—we keep it going.
And so, on this Pentecost Sunday, I give thanks to God the Father for the breath of life at creation. I give thanks to God the Son for giving us the breath of new life. I give thanks to God the Holy Spirit for bringing us together into a conspiracy of God’s people. And I pray that we can share the breath, the Spirit, the life of God with everyone we meet.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.