To listen to today’s reflection as a podcast, click here
During the month of November we’re taking a look at 21 essential activities of the Holy Spirit, who represents God’s presence in and through every follower of Jesus.
On a chilly weekend early last spring, my wife Mary Sue felt awful. A trip to the ER confirmed that she had pneumonia.
The next day, back at home, I resolved to create a quiet, cozy atmosphere in which she could rest and heal. That would start with a fire in the fireplace.
As I hauled in a few logs, Mary Sue, who was prone on the couch, asked an important question: Was I absolutely sure the damper was open?
I stretched and peered up the chimney. It sure looked open to me. “Yes!” I answered. I lit the fire. Thick clouds of smoke immediately began pouring into our house. A smoke-filled room is not generally considered the most helpful environment for someone with pneumonia.
The smoke alarm nearest the living room went off first, followed quickly by all of its friends in adjoining rooms and hallways. This was not restful. I began opening doors and windows, allowing blasts of cold air to rush into the house and clear the smoke. Chilly air is also not generally considered the most helpful environment for someone with pneumonia.
I pondered what the police might say if Mary Sue took a turn for the worse. “So let me get this straight: Your wife has pneumonia, so you filled the house with smoke and freezing air. Is that the story you’re sticking with?”
Living things breathe. You never realize how significant each breath is until you struggle to take your next one.
The Holy Spirit is the source of the “breath of life” that sustains everything on this planet we call home. That gift is one of 21 essential activities of the Spirit that we will target throughout the month of November.
There’s nothing special about the number 21. It just happens to correspond to the number of weekdays (excluding Thanksgiving) between now and December. Realistically, we could identify scores of ways that the Spirit is always acting in and through our lives. From the Old Testament’s first few verses, through the story of Israel, into the life and ministry of Jesus, and in particular within our everyday lives as Christ-followers, we’ll discover that we cannot go from this moment to the next one without the Spirit.
Let’s begin where the Bible begins. In the opening words of Genesis we learn that the Spirit breathes.
The Hebrew word ru’ach and the Greek word pneuma, which are translated “spirit” in the Old and New Testaments, respectively, both serve triple duty linguistically. They also mean “breath” and “wind.” Thus God’s Spirit can be understood as the very breath of God.
In Genesis chapter one, God breathes creation into existence.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).
This remarkable snapshot from the beginning of the cosmos may well be echoed in the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary. When she asks how in the world she can possibly bear a child if she is still a virgin, he replies, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
The Spirit hovers, overshadows, or broods over the waters of creation, seemingly ready to breathe the breath of life into everything God has made. In Genesis 2:7, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground, breathing life into his nostrils – “and man became a living being.” In the same way, God himself becomes a living human being within the womb of a Jewish peasant girl.
This breathing-out by the Spirit is not just a one-time act of creation. It can also be a re-creation of our life with God, as many times as our inner worlds become empty and dry. In Ezekiel 37:1-10, the prophet looks down upon an utterly disheartening valley of dry bones. That’s what faithless Israel has become. “There was no breath in them.”
But when God blows upon that skeletal heap, “they came to life and stood up on their feet.” The breath of God’s Spirit means there is always hope of a different kind of tomorrow.
When Jesus stands before his confused and fearful disciples after his resurrection, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22) – a gift that will explode into its fullest dimensions at Pentecost. And Paul tells us that Scripture itself is theopneustos, a fascinating, made-up word that means “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16).
We may say that that Scripture inspires us. But theopneustos is not making a claim about the Bible’s effect on its readers. Instead, it’s asserting that every time we hold a Bible in our hands, we’re clutching something that was breathed out from the very heart and mind of God.
This, of course, may seem quite interesting, from a theological perspective. But will the fact that the Spirit is the breath of God make any real difference to you and me over the next 24 hours?
Let’s return to an observation we made earlier this year as we pondered how God introduces himself to Moses in Exodus 3.
Moses is shaking in his sandals. Who, exactly, is this mysterious Presence speaking to him from a burning bush?
God identifies himself with four Hebrew letters: YHWH. No one knows precisely what they mean, or even how they should be pronounced. Most Bible students opt for Yahweh, and believe that God’s personal name should be translated, “I am who am.”
In other words, God is God and we are not. He is the ultimate Being in the cosmos. Others prefer, “I am who I am.” That is, “Moses, who I am is none of your business.” This would be an expression of God’s impenetrable identity. Still other scholars believe Yahweh means, “I will be there with you,” or “I am all you need.”
The simplest and perhaps most compelling insight is that God may have wanted his people to think about him every time they took a breath.
Try it. Breathe in: Yah. Breathe out: Weh. “Yah-weh.”
The consonants in YHWH are the only ones in Hebrew in which the speaker doesn’t use the tongue or close the lips. All the other consonants – such as P, K, T, B – explode off the lips or teeth, or spring from the back of the throat. But Yahweh can be said effortlessly. It’s as easy as breathing in and breathing out.
God’s name, in fact, may represent a constant reminder that he is the One, by means of his Spirit, who keeps us breathing.
Farther Richard Rohr has made an intriguing suggestion. The Franciscan priest notes that the first word spoken by every human being, the world over, is the sacred name of God. The first breath of every newborn baby is God’s personal identity. And just in case you’re anxious about what you should pray just before you die, don’t worry. With your last breath you will speak God’s name.
Rohr goes on to say that there isn’t a Catholic way of breathing or a Protestant way or an English way or an American way.
There’s just breathing.
You’ve done it your whole life – on average, about 20,000 times a day, whether awake or asleep.
But from time to time, as we catch our breath going from one moment to the next one, we can choose to stop and remember:
Living things breathe. And each of our breaths is a living gift from God’s own Spirit.
To listen to today’s reflection as a podcast, click here