Breath of God
Pentecost Sunday. Fr Timothy Radcliffe considers the Christian vocation in the light of today’s feast.
Soon after we were born, we emptied our lungs of fluid and breathed for the first time. During an average lifespan, a human being breathes 650 million times before we take our last breath. Life is one breath after another. Our sharing in eternal life is also a drama of breathing. ‘Then the Lord God formed man out of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being’ (Genesis 2.7). The divine name revealed to Moses has been said to be like the sound of breathing. Every time we breathe, we utter God’s name. On the cross Jesus breathed out his final breath that we might live.
Today we celebrate our sharing in the divine breath, both in John’s account of the Risen Lord breathing on the disciples and the mighty breathing of God at Pentecost which descended like tongues of fire on the disciples.
What does it mean for us to be filled with the breathing of God? The first vocation of humanity was to be gardeners, caring for all that lives. In the psalm for today’s Mass, we sing ‘when you send forth your spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth’ (Psalm 104). More than ever before, we are aware that we have been bad gardeners, and that our little planet is struggling for breath. In our cities, polluted air dooms people to premature death. Also during this pandemic, for the first time in history, billions of people are wearing masks as we fear that our breathing will bring death to ourselves or those whom we love.
The Risen Lord bestows on us to an even more radical gardening, the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is not weeding out sins and pretending that they never happened. It is a sharing in the Resurrection of the Lord, whose death bore fruit on Easter morning. Humanity slaughtered Love Incarnate, but on Easter day the dead wood flowered with a love that can never die.
Every sterile and destructive act may be brought to the Lord with confidence that our lives, apparently doomed to futility, will be opened again to the fullness of life. The desert of our lives flourishes. We sing to the Holy Spirit in the Sequence: ‘on our dryness pour your dew.’ The graves of the Trappist monks, portrayed in Of Gods and Men, who lost their lives to the murderous violence that swept Algeria in the nineties, are now covered with flowers left by Christian and Muslim pilgrims. This is the fertility of Paschal forgiveness, the breathing of the God of eternal life in our lives.
It is said that in our society ‘everything is permitted but nothing is forgiven.’ There is a pressure to wipe out the memory of previous generations because they colluded in some way, perhaps unconsciously, with evil, as indeed we do today. Who knows how we shall be judged one day? The novelist Malcolm Gladwell said that ‘cancel culture is what happens when you have a generation of people who are not raised with a Christian ethic of forgiveness’. Forgiveness does not demand the erasure the past, for we may remember all that we have done and been, individually and as society, trusting in the fecundity of the Lord’s grace to triumph of every death dealing act. We even call that most fateful day of all ‘Good Friday’.
That divine gardening of our lives has come down to earth in the power given to each of us by the Risen Lord: ‘Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.’ And when sins are retained it is always in the hope of the ultimate triumph of love and life. In the sacrament of reconciliation this fertility is given through those who are ordained to represent us all, the whole Body of Christ.
On Pentecost Day, the breathing of God came upon the disciples like a mighty wind, freeing the disciples to speak in different tongues, healing the divisions between nations. There were even present ‘inhabitants of Mesopotamia’, the forbears of our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq who suffer to this day. As international tensions deepen and the threat of violence and war grows again, we have much divine gardening to do.