'Breath of the Savior' by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (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 them and said to them. "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.
Perhaps the most obvious lesson is intimacy. Breath itself indicates intimacy. It comes from within a person, and can only be felt and received by those who are near. Receiving the Holy Spirit - the breath of God - demands and deepens intimacy with God. By His breathing God gives something of Himself, indeed His very Self. The breath He breaths is His own Spirit, coming from deep within Himself, welling up from eternity. And to receive His breath, we cannot stand far off or remain aloof. We must seek the Lord, ask for His Spirit and draw close to Him, near to His face.
As our Lord breathed on them, perhaps the apostles recalled two other accounts of God breathing. First, at creation the breath of God brought man to life: "The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being" (Gen 2:7). God breathed once at creation. On Easter Sunday, God breathes again, recreating man, making him a "new creation" (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15).
Second, after man's fall and death's entrance, God revealed to the prophet Ezekiel that His breath brings the dead to life. Showing Ezekiel a valley of dry bones, He told him to prophesy: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live" (Ez 37:9). God raised the bones, and as Ezekiel prophesied "the breath came into them and they lived" (Ez 37:10). In the upper room our Lord fulfills the vision of Ezekiel. He breaths, and dead souls come back to life.
Breath itself implies life, just as surely as the failure to breathe indicates death. That is why you do not want to lose your breath and at times may have to stop to catch your breath. A basic emergency medical procedure - mouth-to-mouth resuscitation - aims at restoring a person's breathing. This natural truth has a supernatural parallel. By giving us His breath our Lord gives us His Life. He does not merely "resuscitate" us, that is, bring us back to what we were. His breath imparts not merely natural life but - the life of God Himself.
Of course, our Lord's gift of the Holy Spirit extends beyond the upper room. In the same breath (you might say) He also commissions the apostles to continue His work: "as the father has sent me, so I send you" (Jn 20:21). The Holy Spirit, the breath of God, is inseparable from the Church. Just as a body must have a soul in order to live, so the Body of Christ, the Church, also has a soul. And the Holy Spirit is her soul, her very life breath. The Holy Spirit protects the Church's teachings, sanctifies her sacraments and unites her members. The Church is, as St. Hippolytus put it, the place "where the Spirit flourishes."
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