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He Breathed on Them
The risen Christ and the breath of peace
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
John 20:19-22, New Revised Standard Version
Last summer, Emily and I spent a week at a cabin in East Tennessee. There were bears that would wander up on the deck or rustle through the brush of the ravine below. Song birds were visible in the canopy—buntings, singing iridescent in the open spaces and tanagers, red as scarlet, foraging for caterpillars along the branches of poplars. We hiked some, but most of our days were spent on the deck, looking out at the mountains, reading and writing, and then looking again. From morning to dusk, the mountains were covered in their eponymous, smokey haze.
That haze, so characteristic of the Smokey Mountains, is not like the haze of the air pollution that settles like a blanket on cities like Los Angeles. Nor is it the smoke of distant wildfires from the west or the dust of the Sahara that is blown each year, around the world. What I was seeing in that vapor was breath made visible—the rich compounds of respiration, exhaled by a landscape that is so dense with life that we could actually see the breath of creation.
All the world breathes. It was a wise insight of the priestly-poet who first sang the words of Genesis 1 to begin with the Holy Ruach, the Holy Breath, hovering above the formless waters—ready to begin the work of life. And we know something of our kinship with the other animals, the spirit-filled creatures of the earth, when Genesis 2 makes clear that we were all given life through the breath of God.
When the first person is made, he is called adam because he was formed from the adamah. He is a human from the humus soil. We now know that humus soil, the good and life giving soil of the earth, is distinct because it is aerobic—it breathes. All of the bacteria and fungi, protozoa and nematodes that help plants grow and human life flourish from the soil are aerobic—they share in this common life of breath. Breathing, living soil, filled with the breath of God—it is a powerful image of who we are as creatures.
To breathe, deeply and easily, calms the heart, enlivens the brain, and fills the whole body with a sense of peace. Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace and it means far more than a lack of conflict. Shalom is wholeness, health, restfulness. When we breathe well we experience shalom, that peaceful state that is the settled default of our lives.
To not have breath, to not be able to breathe—it is a fearful thing. I remember one summer just after college. I was living in Chicago, where I caught the bus each day to work. One of those mornings the humid heat and air pollution were so strong that I gasped for breath on the bus, a sense of suffocation pouring over my oxygen starved body. It was a hint of the kind of air that so many of the world’s people must breathe—air that takes breath and poisons lungs.
The world of Empire, the world of the Machine, is always an assault on breath. Our economies of exploitation and extraction, promising peace and prosperity, result in pollution that kills 7 million a year for lack of breath. “I can’t breathe” were the haunting last words of George Floyd and they are the words repeated everywhere from the burning rainforests of a climate ravaged Amazon to the Chinese peasant whose lungs are blackened by the industries that produce our Prime orders. “I can’t breathe” is the cry of the earth, herself, gasping beneath the concrete of our ever expanding cities.
Fear takes away our breath. Whether it is the chest tightening panic of anxiety or the violent taking of breath for the sake of our supposed security, breath becomes difficult when our lives are out of balance, when we can no longer trust anyone. Fear takes away our breath. The shoulders move forward, the lungs are constricted. We take short breaths, each delivering only a fraction of what the body needs. And so a sense of desperation deepens.
The students of Jesus, his disciples, were afraid. The doors were locked, the windows closed. There was little ventilation in that room—all anxious, heart rates erratic, breaths shallow. Rome, which promised peace, had conspired with the religious authorities to kill their teacher. It was a death of suffocation for the cross a means of forcing the lungs to collapse under the pressure of the body. The peace that Rome offered and maintained was a peace that relied on taking breath, it was a peace not of wholeness and health, but of stasis and exploitation, violently enforced. The religious leaders had made a compromise with that peace, agreeing to its terms as long as they could continue their sacrifices and all the apparatus of clean and unclean that had replaced the call for justice. Jesus had challenged all of that and now he was dead, peace restored through stasis, and the disciples knew that they were next.
It was into that closed and claustrophobic, fear-filled room that Jesus came saying, “Peace be with you.” Imagine the gasp of seeing him, the flooding burst of air coursing through their bodies. This was the peace of shalom, the peace of deep, slow breath that he offered. How could it be that Jesus was now before them, a man with a body of flesh, lungs filled with breath?
There was a tradition in the world of that time, that a loved one would receive the final, dying breath of a relative or friend. It was a way of holding on, in a way, to their spirit. In his last moments on the cross, Jesus had given over his final breath to God: “Father, into your hands I give over my life’s breath.”
In that moment of offering, Jesus did not succumb to fear, though he suffered. Instead, he did what he had done throughout his life, what he taught his followers to also do. He completely entrusted his life to God and with it any hope of justice for the wrong against him, any hope of the future for the mission of love that he had so faithfully carried out. He gave his breath to God, knowing that God would hold it, and breathe it into the world again.
God exhaled and Jesus was resurrected, his suffocated lungs now filled with new life. In his surrender and trust, his refusal of all the means of violence by which the sham peace of Empire was maintained, Jesus was now vindicated. And he came now to his disciples to give them the breath of his life, the breath of peace and wholeness that would free them from the fears that had overwhelmed them. “Take the holy life-breath,” he said and offered the new air of resurrection life.
That Holy Spirit, that Holy Breath, that stirred among his disciples, freeing them from the claustrophobic walls of fear, still moves among us. To live from it, we must give over our own breath, so inadequate and gasping, and surrender ourselves like Jesus, our example, trusting our lives to God. With the Holy Breath inside us, we too will be called beyond the confines of safety and into the open and risky air of love.
The world wants to breathe. But the false peace of Empire, the peace that takes breath for the sake of safety and security, the false peace that provides abundance by pollution and extraction, are suffocating us at every turn. We who receive the peace of Christ, and offer it to each other in return, must learn to breathe by the new air of resurrection. In taking in that Holy Breath we can move boldly into the suffocating world and offer Christ’s shalom—his rest and wholeness—as fresh air even in the midst of death.