Breath – A Reflection for Pentecost

Pentecost 2020

Psalm 104: 24-34; John 20: 19-23


All the living beings on our amazing green planet, all the creatures that fill the earth and seas (Psalm 104: 24), depend on the Creator for breath: when it is taken away we die; when it is sent forth we are part of the living creation. In this respect human beings, latecomers to this extraordinary natural story, are just one part of the whole. The author of Ecclesiastes puts it with almost brutal directness: ‘the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity.’ (Ecclesiastes 3: 19)

Genesis chapters 1 and 2, with its two stories of creation, rejects the charge of ‘vanity’. It is not all vanity. For the breath of life was breathed into human nostrils by the Lord God (Gen 2: 7), and, according to the other account, humankind, male and female, bear the divine image (Genesis 1: 27); and this is all part of a great enterprise.

What has all this to do with Pentecost? It begins with the fact that human beings have a certain kind of precious awareness. Not only were we created in God’s image; by grace we may know it. And what is the test? The test is prayer. George Herbert, early 17th Century poet and parish priest, spoke of ‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’, and this in his great sonnet entitled ‘Prayer’. As a Jewish scholar puts it, the Name of God is unutterable, but we may hear it in the sound of our own breathing (Lawrence Kushner, quoted by Dennis Lennon in ‘Turning the Diamond’, 2002). For Christians prayer is ‘our vital breath’ (James Montgomery, Singing the Faith, 529).

And why is this particularly true for followers of Christ? Because he shows us that all is not vanity, and he does this by giving us his breath – the breath he surrendered in death (John 19: 30) becomes the breath he imparts to his people in their locked room on the evening of that first Easter Day (John 20: 22). For the author of the fourth Gospel that is the start of the new age. “Receive the Holy Spirit”, he says to them, that the world which has treated me as a stranger may know what it means to be a fully human being living and serving in unbroken communion with the God of love.

In another poem George Herbert put all this into four short lines:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life: Such a Way, as gives us breath;
Such a Truth, as ends all strife;
Such a Life, as killeth death.
(Hymns and Psalms 254)

Trevor Thomas (27th May 2020)