The Holy Spirit is probably the hardest person of the Blessed Trinity to envisage. Father and Son are more familiar images and more easily relatable to than a dove or fire, or wisdom. Granted, there are other more personal images used in the Gospels, such as a teacher, mentioned by Jesus in the Gospel of John. In the reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, the same image is implied as the Spirit enables the apostles to speak in many languages, the message of the good news. This is the Spirit as language teacher! Then there is the reference to the paraclete or advocate, which originally in the Greek world stood for a defence counsel or lawyer who stands by you in court to save you from your accuser. (He will come in handy, Jesus says, when his apostles are dragged before various tribunals and wonder what to say in their defence.)
But the image I wish to focus on today comes from the description of Jesus newly risen and appearing for the first time to his apostles. The text tells us that Jesus breathed on his disciples. This is surely the gift of the Spirit who is the very breath of God.
Now breath is one of the basic images of life. How long can you hold your breath before you pass out? You can last for a while without food or water, but breath is an immediate and demanding need. Consider the suffering of people who have Asthma or Emphysema or COPD, as they gasp for breath, depending on inhalers and oxygen to keep them going.
In the Scriptures, this image of breath is related to the doctrine of creation. In Genesis we are reminded of the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters, ready to carry out God’s creative work of bringing order out of chaos. Then in the creation of Adam, God breathes life into his nostrils. Thus, the Holy Spirit is to be found at the beginning of creation, and now heralding a new creation brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
One simple way of relating to God as spirit, then, is simply to focus on our breathing. This is often a first step in the practice of meditation. Or think of what you are advised to do if you are suddenly under stress and panicking – don’t go for the pills, take some deep breaths and calm will come. Every breath we take is a gift from God. God’s spirit is breathing through us and giving us life.
This works at a basic physical level, with more oxygen flowing into our veins and arteries, giving us fresh energy. In breathing deeply, we can literally feel more alive, stronger, and resilient. And, as believers, we can cry out “Thanks be to God.”
But the breath of God, the Spirit, is also needed for the soul to breathe, to come alive. This is what we call the “spiritual life.” This is found in the various gifts and fruits of the Spirit as well as the various ministries Paul listed in the second reading today. Without these, we will find our souls gasping and panting from spiritual asthma.
In this Pentecost Gospel, Jesus importantly underlines the role of the Spirit in forgiveness, such that when we forgive others, we are like Jesus breathing life into others, and when forgiven we are receiving that same gift.
While the image of breath is comforting, literally life-giving, we mustn’t forget that the Spirit also challenges us in a loving way. This is implied in the related image of wind in the Pentecost account. The breath of God can also be like a wind blowing away the spiritual and moral cobwebs of our lives. The fire of the Spirit likewise wants to burn away those obstacles that prevent us from really coming alive.
A classic pop song some years back proclaimed, “Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.” It expressed an obsessive and jealous love of a man who had lost his wife. But if we apply it to God, it can become a real hymn to the Spirit. God is no stalker, as he always respects our freedom, and his love is not sickly possessive. Every breath we take is his loving gift as he watches out for us and over us with infinite compassion.
May the breath of life, God’s Holy Spirit, be with your spirit always.