“She breathed on me! A dead person breathed on me!”
When ‘80s tweenager Audrey Griswold (Dana Barron) shrieked that line in National Lampoon’s Vacation 30 years ago, it was both hilarious and absurd, because – obviously – dead people don’t breathe.
Unless they’re Jesus, that is.
OK, the revivified people I wrote about last week in God Rose presumably also breathed, but the Bible doesn’t point their respiration out specifically like it does with Jesus in John 20:19-23:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, 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. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
I know this is a holy moment, full of biblical and symbolic significance. This is the breath of God we’re talking about. But at the same time, it’s hard for me to get past the very irreverent notion that this is the breath of a dead guy we’re talking about. (It’s not like they had Listerine back then, after all.)
There’s no indication that the disciples were repulsed by the odor, or even that there was one. But given Judaism’s view of cadavers in general, this couldn’t have been a terribly comfortable moment for them.
Not that Jesus’ priority has ever been to make His disciples feel more comfortable…
In fact, He has a way of knocking aside our personal boundaries and social norms, doesn’t He? Last year I wrote Spit, a Disciplehood post about the yucky-sounding, loogie-laden healings chronicled in Mark, so let’s not go there again (please).
Breath is generally less off-putting than saliva, but it’s still hard to view anyone’s intentional exhalation in your face as a blessing. Even at the best of times.
But this isn’t just anyone, and this isn’t just any breath.
When Jesus breathed on the Disciples, He reprised one of the most important moments in the history of humanity:
“Then 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
The breath of God brought Man to life.
And this was a lot more than the heavenly version of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (or in this case, suscitation). The Bible doesn’t say anything about God forming other animals from the dust and breathing into their nostrils the breath of life, after all. The impression we get is that this act was for humanity alone!
And what we received from God on that first day of the rest of our life was not merely air. In some ancient languages, the word for ‘breath’ and the word for ‘spirit’ are the same word. (The Latin word for breath is ‘spiritus‘, for example; that’s where we get the word ‘respire’) so it was through this breath of life that Humanity became both animal and spiritual.
In Genesis, God breathed the breath of life into the First Adam, kindling in him a spirit of his own. In the locked room of John 20, the Last Adam breathed the breath of new life onto His followers and friends, anointing them with the Holy Spirit.
Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew;
That I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.
Peace be with you.