Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after the Resurrection. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the day of Pentecost and the indwelling of God’s Spirit in a new way, more continuous and more manifest than had been experienced before. The ancient Aramaic translation of the Pentecost story puts it this way, “And as the days of Pentecost were fulfilled, they gathered together as one. And there was from the stillness of heaven a sound like the stirring of Spirit, and the whole house was filled with it, where they were staying.” The spirit then fell upon them as tongues of fire. After Pentecost the word, God, as they had defined it, was no longer adequate to describe what the Christians were experiencing. As John Polkinghorne puts it, [The Faith of a Physicist, pg. 146] “The early Church felt that it experienced divine power present within it with a peculiar intensity and personality.”
They looked into the Hebrew scriptures for ways to explain what had happened. The language of spirit (ruah) was used in the Old Testament in relation to creation (Genesis 1: 2f.) The Spirit brooded over the waters of chaos in creation. In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for spirit means also ‘breath’ or ‘wind.’ This is the sense of today’s Gospel reading. On Easter afternoon, the disciples were huddled behind closed doors for fear of the authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and showed his wounds. And as the disciples rejoiced he said twice “Peace be with you!” Then he said, “As the Father has sent Me, so I also send you.” Then, when He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This verse can be translated, “Receive the holy breath.” He then says, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven him, but if you do not forgive someone, his sins are retained.”
Jesus breathes on them giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples. They had been behind closed doors for fear of the Jews. He tells them that they may forgive sins and retain them. I have been wondering? Is Jesus telling the church to be the moral police as has so often been the interpretation of this passage? Or is he saying in another way what he said in so many other places, namely, that we are to forgive everyone? If we retain sins is it because we can choose whether or not to forgive OR because we are unwilling or unable to forgive? Did our Lord not tell Peter to forgive infinitely? If we do not forgive is it because we are able to inhale the holy breath?
I am learning that deep breathing and fear are not compatible. Years ago and far far away I studied Yoga. The word comes from the Sanskrit and means union, from the words “to join”. Yoga is a technique for promoting “mindfulness.” — to become still and in that stillness to awaken and become conscious. To breathe and stretch promotes consciousness of one’s body one is present in one’s body. The yoga tradition says that each human being has a certain number of breaths to breathe in their lifetime. To breathe rapidly and shallowly is to waste our very life. Although I doubt there are a set number of breaths per life, shallow rapid breathing does not promote health. Is the same true in the life of faith?
It is difficult to panic when breathing from the diaphragm. When we panic we breath faster and more often, which in turn promotes more fear and less thinking. When we are afraid we have more trouble forgiving than when we are centered. The gospel tells us that perfect or mature love casts out fear. When we are centered we can choose to love rather than become our fear. After Jesus breathed on the apostles they were no longer afraid. They went into the streets proclaiming the good news of God in Christ to the very people from whom they had earlier hidden.
Like deep breathing, the presence of the Holy Spirit is incompatible with paralyzing fear. So it stands to reason to me that where we are afraid is the very place the Spirit is likely to be manifested. Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco says, “The Spirit is present in three open spaces in our lives: in the unpredictable, in the place of risk and in those areas over which we have no control.”
We do not know what is going to happen. Not long ago I read an essay by Umberto Ecco where he speaks of flying…
A century or so ago the airship was invented. What a wonderful thing people thought, to be able to travel through the air just like a bird. And then it was discovered that the airship was a dead-end invention. The invention that survived was the areoplane. When the first airships appeared, people thought there would subsequently be a linear progression, advancement to more refined, swifter models. But this did not happen. Instead, at a certain point there was a lateral development.
After the Hindenburg went up in flames in 1937, [killing 35 people], things began to move in a different direction. At one time it seemed logical that you had to be lighter than air in order to fly in the sky – but then it turned out that you had to be heavier than air to fly more efficiently. The moral of the story is that in both philosophy and the sciences [and I would add life] you must be very careful not fall in love with your own airship.
We must resist the temptation of thinking that we should know more than we can know. Life is unpredictable. But the Spirit is always present to guide us into all truth. If we breathe deeply of the breath of life that Jesus gave the disciples we can with courage live in the open place we call unpredictable.
To be alive is to risk. Yet we are so afraid of risking. We run the numbers, buy insurance, take polls as if by some incantation or marshaling of force we shall at last be secure. But it is an illusion. As Helen Keller, a woman who knew a good bit about challenge once wrote,
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
Let us go on the adventure of our lives. The Spirit is always present in the open place we call risk.
The promise of our Lord is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the heavenly dove, the bird of open spaces, of the unpredictable, the risky and uncontrollable. Our part is to become quiet and be still, facing our fear that the love of God will be manifest in us. Yoga or whatever it takes. Wendell Berry speaks of the process in a poem from SABBATHS.
- I go among the trees and sit still,
- All my stirring becomes quiet
- around me like circles on water.
- My tasks lie in their places
- where I left them, asleep like cattle.
- Then what is afraid of me comes
- and lives a while in my sight.
- What it fears in me leaves me,
- and the fear of me leaves it.
- It sings, and I hear its song.
- Then what I am afraid of comes.
- I live for a while in its sight.
- What I fear in it leaves it,
- and the fear of it leaves me.
- It sings, and I hear its song.
- After days of labor,
- mute in my consternations,
- I hear my song at last,
- and I sing it. As we sing
- the day turns, the trees move.
fear prevents the breathing that produces song.
Someone once asked a famous Mississippi doctor what she was going to do in the face of a crisis and she said, “I’m going to breathe in and I’m going to breathe out.” In matters of faith and the spirit it is the least and the most any of us can do.