Easter, the Second Sunday

Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in Him you may grow to salvation (cf. I Peter 2:2).

God of everlasting mercy,
Who in the very recurrence of the Paschal Feast
kindle the faith of the people You have made Your own,
increase, we pray, the grace You have bestowed,
that all may grasp and rightly understand
in what font they have been washed,
by whose Spirit they have been reborn,
by whose Blood they have been redeemed.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting. (Psalm 118:1).

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on (ἐνεφύσησεν) them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive (ἀφῆτε) are forgiven (ἀφέωνται) them, and whose sins you retain are retained (John 20:21-23).”

Breathing on someone is generally considered rude behavior in Western culture. But what happens when that breath is a kiss? What happens when that breath is administered during CPR compressions? In these cases, the breath of another is not only desirous, it is action expressing love and giving life. Hence the rich imagery of Jesus’ breath of the Holy Spirit being blown on and into the disciples to continue the work of redemption and the transformation of the human heart.

A number of episodes in the Old Testament employ 2 words that form a backdrop for Jesus’ action of breathing on His disciples. In Genesis 2, the Divine Breath (נְשָׁמָה, nshamah), blown into the nostrils, transforms good-for-nothing-clay (or dust) into a living being. Nshamah here conveys vitality, necessity. Without the Divine Nshamah, there is no life. All in the created order, humanity especially, is dependent upon this life-principle. From a related yet slightly different perspective Psalm 104 and Ezekiel 37 employ the Hebrew word רוח (ravach) “When you hide your face, they panic. Take away their breath, they perish and return to the dust (Psalm 104:29).” In Ezekiel, “Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O breath (רוּחַ ruwach), and breathe (נָפַח naphach) into these slain that they may come to life. I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath (רוּחַ ruwach) entered them; they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army (Ezekiel 37:5-10).” The two Hebrew word groups, nshamah and ravach/ruwach, complement each other in terms of origin and growth. Nshamah conveys a sense of life beginning once the breath of God has been breathed into humanity. Ravach/ruwach, especially in their original Hebrew usage, conveyed a sense of growing as a result of inflating.

In his Catechetical Lectures, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem sees clear connections between Jesus’ actions and the Old Testament references: “This was the second time he breathed on human beings – his first breath having been stifled through willful sins. But though he bestowed his grace then, he was to lavish it yet more bountifully.” Interestingly, this all offers insight into the reality of sin and why Jesus’ breath is so vital for human living. Against the backdrop of nshamah and ravach/ruwach, sin can be viewed as a gradual suffocation. As the selfishness of sin increases, the capacity for love – the giving to other – diminishes. Not realizing that our very lives are gasping for breath to live, the death-spiral of sin robs us of Who and what is necessary for authentic love and life. With thanksgiving that knows no bounds, the Church rejoices in the Easter gift of the Lord’s breath that kisses the wounds of life inflating our very being with His peace, His life, His love.

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