If someone had told me a couple years ago that I’d be acquiring so much knowledge and participating in so many discussions about breath, respiratory aerosols and droplets, and the dynamics of airborne transmissibility, it would have been hard for me to believe. The only singer’s “mask” I would have thought about at that time would have been part of discussion of vocal production and placement, not an accessory that made me look somewhat like a waterfowl. As someone who has worked quite a bit with singers and choirs, my education did include some physiology about the breathing and vocal mechanisms, but never at a microscopic level.
“And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ” (John 20:22). I recall hearing this verse on Easter II 2020, and how it tickled my ears in a new way; even moreso in 2021, with a year-plus under my belt of living and attempting to minister in the world of an airborne virus.
This verse from John has long been my favorite version of the giving of the Spirit, not Luke’s version from Acts. This preference is partly out of orneriness (same reason I prefer Matthew’s infancy narrative to Luke’s, and John’s prologue to both), but I also like the intimacy and connectedness of the “Pentecost” scene in John.
In my April post, I referred to the general disorganization found in the Gospels’ accounts of the days following the discovery of the empty tomb. This is compounded, in my view, by the way we scatter the Resurrection/post-Resurrection events across the weeks of the Easter season, dispersed through three years of the Lectionary. This liturgical/lectionary diaspora is of necessity, I understand, but has come with its own unintended consequences.
We tend to lose sight of how much the evangelists relate happening on the actual day of the discovery of the empty tomb. The Risen Christ and his followers had an action-packed day! This is why we need to have seven weeks packed with actions (especially baptismal actions), environment, texts, and music to bind all those days into the One Day of Easter.
It is worth noting that John’s giving of the Spirit via the breath of Christ happens on the very same day that the empty tomb is discovered. This is a primary intimacy/connectedness between Easter and the Johannine Spirit-giving, one that we lose by always placing a week’s separation between the two events. We also lose—or, at the very least, diminish—that intimacy/connectedness by the unrelenting year-after-year focus on our scolding of Thomas on Easter II.
A second often-overlooked intimacy/connectedness is that in John 20:22 Jesus gives the breath of life to the Church in a way patterned on the way that God gave the breath of life to a lump of clay in Genesis to create humanity. Other creatures in the second creation account, of course, breathed. Only humankind is animated by the very breath of divinity. John’s Gospel opens in a manner similar to Genesis and, in a way, John “crowns” his Gospel with this other link to Genesis.
Perhaps the most significant intimacy/connectedness that we obscure is this: the Spirit, breathed on the followers of the Risen One, would also have been breathed in by them. The resurrected, glorified body of Jesus still breathed, and it was that very risen, glorified breath that went into the lungs of those present to receive it. We should have learned this past year how deeply connected we all are by breath and air; hopefully our moving beyond the worst of the pandemic doesn’t make us forget this significant and divinely-given relationship.
(At this point, I will state briefly that I understand the Lucan scholarship about Acts’ timeline for the Ascension and Pentecost. It’s part of Luke’s “stage-setting.” Similar to the way John the Baptist has to be out of the picture in Luke’s gospel before Jesus can begin his ministry—in Luke, the two only “meet” at the Visitation, never in person, even at the Jordan—Jesus has to be ascended, out of the picture, in order for the Holy Spirit to be released.)
After years of meditating on and praying over John 20:22, I finally wrote a hymn text prompted by it. I invite you to read it aloud, as a poem. There are a couple intentional features I’d point out for you to center on as you do so. The first stanza is intended to be performative—as you begin each line with the word “breath,” take note of the divinely-given breath you drew in order to give life to that word and the words that follow it. In the following three stanzas, a sense of intimacy/connectedness is meant to be conveyed as the word “Spirit” inaugurates a series of anadiploses (the final word of a line is the first word of the next). Finally, if you are able, do not take a breath between the final line of stanza 3 and the first line of stanza 4; another type of connectedness.
Breath of Christ, O Holy Spirit,
Breath surrendered on the cross,
Breath that left the tomb all silent,
Breath who raised a Church from loss—
Breath Divine—Come Holy Spirit!
Spirit shown in stirring wind,
Wind that moves upon the waters,
Waters that removed our sin—
Breath of Life, our Holy Spirit,
Spirit known in tongues of flame,
Flame that burns both bright and holy,
Holy Spirit, you we claim—
—As the breath of Christ, O Spirit,
Spirit with the Father one,
One yet three, one God we name you:
You the Father, Spirit, Son.
“Breath of Christ” Copyright © 2019, the WLP division of GIA Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.