Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Fresh breath

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the June 9, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky With good reason for 50 days the Church celebrates the joyous Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It’s a challenge to celebrate anything for more than three days, let alone 50! If we view such an effort as merely prolonging the memory of an event, we fall short. The golden celebration of Easter does not focus on the number of days, but the depth of deepening conversion into the new and full life we have in our Risen Lord. Yet even after another 50 days of celebration in 2011, do we really “get it”?

The great Easter Feast ends this Sunday with the celebration of Pentecost. We all know the scene well: Peter and the apostles in the upper room; the mighty wind, and speaking in tongues; and all those unpronounceable names of the residences of the crowd in the courtyard outside. In any case, that is how St. Luke portrays Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles.

St. John the Evangelist, offers a different rendition – not to challenge Luke’s historical facts, but to offer a different theological twist, as it were. Jesus appears to his frightened followers, breathes on them and imparts the Holy Spirit. Quite a different approach, with a much more subtle point.

Culturally speaking, being breathed upon is a bit repulsive. We’d like to stake out our right to our own space and certainly to our own air. We truly don’t like the idea of being breathed on ... not even if the person owns a Tic-Tac factory. See how zealously nations guard their “air space.” Nor do we like the close scrutiny of others – as if they were “breathing down our necks.”

Our repulsion notwithstanding, the Pentecost is all about breathing. Jesus appears to his disciples and, yes, breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Thanks be to God, we did not hear from any one of them the complaint, “Knock it off, Jesus! Stop breathing on me!”

Breathing forth the Spirit is a Scriptural image which Pentecost celebrates with power and might. The breathing of Jesus is an intentional reference to the creative breath of God at the beginning of creation. The Hebrew language captures it well with its word ruah – which must be pronounced properly with the guttural sound of a gusting blast. And the gustier the better; remember, it is the mighty wind of Spirit which hovers over formlessness and void in the creation stories found in the Book of Genesis. It is the breath of God’s creative Word which brings all things into being. And, above all, it is this very breath which transforms a lump of clay into man. Without the breath of God, all things are formless and void, empty and meaningless – certainly without life. The breath of God brings all things into being, gives them life, and sustains them.

The lesson expressed in the creation stories is obvious. Equally so, they are not to be read as if they described the very beginning of human life. Rather, they put us in touch with the way it is now, in every moment of creation. We human beings are sons of daughters of God, enlivened with the very breath of God. The Lord our God indeed breathes upon us and we live by that breath. Or at least, that is the way God intends it, for the rest of the story in the opening chapters of Genesis describe the struggle all men and women have with living by the breath of God’s Spirit. In choosing to go our own way we think that by our own machinations we can achieve separation and “freedom” from God. Interestingly, in Genesis, Chapter 11, where alienation from God comes to a head, mankind is engaged even in the guise of religion to achieve a-theism – “separation of God.” Left to his own devices, mankind becomes confused, adrift, alienated from God, self, and itself. Total breakdown in communication and relationship.

The Spirit-breath of Jesus or the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost is the culmination of God’s response to our human situation. With immense unconditional love, God has not abandoned us but has remained faithful to his creation. In the saving life, death and Resurrection of Jesus, mankind is restored to its original goodness by the very breath of God. The ministry of Jesus is not completed until his church, the people of God, are redeemed from their sinful alienation from God and given the breath of true life in God. Just as Genesis cannot be relegated to a narrative about an event of primitive history, so too the story of Pentecost cannot be left by the Christian community to become merely a narrative about an exciting moment in Church history – as if Pentecost were an event unique to the beginning of the Church. Pentecost is the foundational reality of Christian spirituality. We have been re-created by the Spirit of Jesus, the Risen Lord. Not just in some metaphorical or theological way, but in an experiential way. Jesus breathes on us and we are brought to new life.

Liturgically, each Pentecost sees us going through the motions of praying for the fresh outpouring of the Spirit on our Church, our parishes, our families, and even our persons. Do we fully realize what we are asking? Do we truly want such a Spirit? Perhaps we wish to be left alone, complaining: “Jesus, you are breathing on me!” Such a complaint manifests itself in our reluctance to develop a spiritual life, a prayer life, a life sensitive to the inner movements of the Life-Breath of God. Like the people in the days of the Tower of Babel, we think we can go it alone and live a-theistically – without the breath of God. And then we wonder why life is so violent, without meaning, without inner direction, and without peace. Our life of clay becomes dull and painfully ordinary.

Pentecost is the celebration of our life in the Spirit. God has never departed from the creation he has made. But we have – and do – alienate ourselves from God and the exciting partnership we share with him in that creation. At the heart of our Christian spirituality is the cry, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful. Enkindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and you shall renew the face of the Earth!” What better prayer for us in a culture which shows so many signs of alienation from its Maker. If we Christians prayed this prayer with sincerity and not just as ritual, I wonder what would happen in our society, in our churches, in our homes and in schools and places of business? Yes, Jesus – breathe on us all you want!

(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)

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