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April 23rd, 2013

Pentecost – Easter breathed out

The breath of Jesus links Easter and Pentecost. Pentecost is Easter breathed out. One of the significant verses in Mark’s Gospel is 15:37, ‘With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.’ The Greek word here for ‘breathed his last’ is exepneusen, literally ‘breathed out spirit’. This word is repeated in verse 39, and most translations miss this significant repetition. It is the last breath of Jesus that convinces the Gentile centurion that ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.’

In the same way that scholars see as significant the blood and water which flow from the side of Jesus in John’s Gospel(19:34), with the water representing the Holy Spirit, so it is possible to see in this repetition a breathing out of the Holy Spirit of God. The biblical words for Spirit, ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek mean breathed breath.

Jesus gives his last breath that we might receive our first breath in the kingdom, just as he took our place on the cross that we might take his place in heaven.

We have long been lacking a theology of the breath that is contemporary. This is hugely important; the breath is important in other spiritualities and religions, and therefore is a point of contemplative and evangelistic contact.

Sometimes the response of some Evangelicals is to be suspicious of the breath as a spiritual resource because it is somehow ‘Buddhist’ or ‘Eastern.’

The breath is back in the news because of its connection to mindfulness, which is learning to pay attention in the present moment, and one of the main mindful awareness practices is the paying of attention to the breath. From a physiological perspective, as well as a psychological one, the breath is significant for a number of reasons.

Psychologists tell us our breathing is something that we can be aware of, through our senses, our mental awareness and what are called internal perceptual processes. Because our breathing works through our most powerful pumping system,  the lungs, other vital functions, including our heartbeat, often synchronise with the breath.

Most of the time we breathe without being aware of it, but we can also become aware of it. The breath, therefore, sits at the midpoint between what we are aware of and what is out of awareness – meaning that when we pay attention to the breath, things that are normally out of our awareness can come into our conscious perceptions. Attending to the breath also roots us in the present moment, for that is what the breath is anchored to.

This is one of the reasons why attending to the breath is beneficial in mindfulness or meditation. The breath, however, is also deeply significant in Christianity.

At the very beginning, God breathed and we lived: ‘the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Genesis 2:7). He holds our very breath in his hand and sustains us (Daniel 5:23, Acts 17:25,28). And then when we are fearful and afraid God breathes peace into our inmost being.

We are told in John’s Gospel that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus passed through locked doors to meet the fearful disciples.

‘Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:19-22).

In the same way, Jesus can step through the locked doors of our hearts. Our spiritual encounter with Jesus now is the same as it was then. He stands before us and shows us his hands and side.

At Easter we remember his sacrificial death on the cross for us. He breathes out the words, ‘Peace be with you.’ We, too, can be filled with joy.

And we are sent out into the world. He breathes on us, and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ In this passage the close link between Easter and Pentecost is made, ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…’ (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit is the breath of God.

I think the closest imaginative representation of what this breathing must have been like is to be found in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Return of the King. The king who has returned is Aragorn, and he returns with healing hands.  When a number lie close to death in the Healing Houses, poisoned by the ‘black breath’ of the servants of Mordor, Aragorn uses a healing plant called Kingsfoil, which he breathes upon and crushes. ‘Straightaway,’ Tolkein writes, ‘a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke.’ And again they sensed ‘an air wholly fresh and clean and young as if it had not been before breathed by any living thing.’

So for us, his breath, the breath of Christ, is the breath of heaven – and for our healing we breathe in the Holy Spirit that he has breathed out.

The early Christians retained a sense of the importance of the breath as incarnated prayer, through breath prayers like the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ This contains the whole gospel in twelve words.

In the seasons of the church there is a living connection, as after Easter we wait for Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is breathed out on all flesh and the church draws its first breath (Acts 2:17).

Scientists are examining the possibility that each breath we breathe is as unique and individual as a fingerprint – what they call a ‘breathprint.’ At a theological level the breath of life breathed into each person is unique and individual. As Easter is breathed through Pentecost we are offered a unique breathprint of new life.

Shaun Lambert is the Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church and the author of A Book of Sparks – A Study in Christian MindFullness.

A Book of Sparks is a 40 day devotional book that invites us to track the story of Jesus from beginning to end in a new way, learning to pay attention wherever we are.

A Book of Sparks is available from Amazon, on Kindle & in paperback:

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