During the Easter season, our readings from the Book of Acts describe the personal transformation of Jesus’ followers and the explosive growth in their number. Peter and the others grew from a fainthearted band of disillusioned disciples, huddled in prayer behind locked doors, to a bold, faith-filled community of believers. Their faith and love propelled them out from that upper room, into the streets, out beyond Jerusalem, beyond Judaism, and even beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Those first Christians and their message changed the world.
But what had changed them? Surely their faith and confidence grew over the forty days after the Resurrection while the risen Jesus walked among them and explained the Old Testament Scriptures to them. But after Jesus ascended, they stayed hidden away as they prayed and met together, lest they suffer the same fate as Jesus. They needed something more to breathe life and power into their emerging faith. They needed the Holy Spirit.
New Life in the Spirit. Pentecost marks the birthday of the Church—and a new beginning in the lives of the disciples. The exciting news is that the same Holy Spirit is ready to fill our hearts this Pentecost! Just as the Spirit brought the disciples’ faith to life, he can reveal himself to us and overcome our doubts. We can pray that the Spirit would breathe into us his life-giving, life-changing presence during these weeks leading up to Pentecost.
Our articles this month will help us get to know this Holy Spirit. We’ll explore who the Spirit is and how he works in the lives of God’s people. But more than just discovering interesting facts from biblical times, we want to build a relationship with the Spirit that affects our lives today. We want to experience his power living and moving within us and changing our lives, just as those first disciples did.
To do this, we’ll look at an image for the Holy Spirit that appears in the first verses of Scripture and that was also central to the apostles’ experience at Pentecost: wind—or breath. We will examine how this wind of the Spirit worked in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and since Pentecost, in the life of the Church. And we will pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, breathe on me.”
Life-Giving Breath. Have you ever seen a baby take its first breaths? Outwardly, the infant’s entire body flexes and a cry leaves his lungs. The baby’s skin changes color and turns pink as oxygen fills her lungs and bloodstream. Internally, those first breaths physically alter the child’s circulatory system, as the arteries that once brought oxygen-rich blood from the placenta close. The lungs inflate and take over the process of exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide within the bloodstream. These changes, and so many more, occur because of the life-giving power of the breath.
Every week at Mass, we profess our faith in the Holy Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life.” That’s because the Spirit is God’s breath, God’s creative, life-giving presence. Genesis tells us that “a mighty wind” swept over the darkness of the abyss before creation (1:2). This “wind,” ruah in Hebrew, is the spirit or breath of God. Out of this chaos, God’s Spirit breathed everything into existence and brought forth life, order, and beauty. The invisible Spirit shattered the darkness, with cosmic, visible effects. Planets and galaxies, mountains and seas, creatures both great and small—all came into existence by the power of God’s breath. Through the Spirit, God’s manifest presence bursts forth in an irresistible, ever-expanding way.
The next time we see the breath of God in Genesis, it’s as he breathes life directly into man, who becomes a living being (2:7). Our physical vitality and fruitfulness flow directly from the power of God’s breath in us. But even more than just flesh and bone, more than just our intelligence, we are living souls created in the image and likeness of our God. We have the spiritual capacities to know, love, and communicate with our Maker. We received all of this, and so much more, when God breathed his Spirit into man.
This same breath of God appeared again as a rushing wind and dispersed the floodwaters during Noah’s time. This time the Spirit renewed creation and brought about a new beginning for humankind through Noah and his family (Genesis 8:2).
Just as the Spirit created us and breathed life into our bodies, he desires to bring new life to us as we open our hearts to him each day. When we feel surrounded by chaos and confusion, we can trust that the Spirit is with us, hovering over us and breathing upon us to bring order and peace. When we feel far from God or burdened by our daily tasks, the Spirit can renew us, giving us the grace and strength we need—even at that very moment.
Creating a People. God wasn’t interested only in just creating the earth or individual people. He wanted to form an entire nation—a people whom he could call his own and who would become his instrument of salvation for the whole world. Through Abraham, God generously initiated a relationship with man, coming close to his people and blessing those who would respond to him with faith. Although Scripture never directly mentions the wind of the Spirit or the breath of God, Isaac’s miraculous birth to elderly Abraham and Sarah testified to a fruitfulness that could come only from God. Abraham received the power not only to have one son, but to become the father of nations. This could have happened only by the creative, life-giving power of God.
God faithfully continued to pour out his Spirit upon Abraham’s descendants over the centuries. We see the power of the Spirit at work when Moses and the people of Israel fled from Egypt. Trapped on the shores of the Red Sea, they cried out to the Lord and to Moses. It looked like the end for them, but the Lord had other plans:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind [ruah] all night long and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, so that the Israelites entered into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water as a wall to their right and to their left. (Exodus 14:21-22)
By this same mighty breath of God, the Lord saved his people and set them free.
We are God’s people, and the Spirit can bring freedom and hope to our lives just as certainly as the wind of the Spirit caused the Red Sea to part. The Spirit can calm our swirling emotions and show us the next step on our path to following Jesus. The Spirit can prompt us to go to Confession and fill us with new strength when we feel bound by our sin. The Spirit can even overcome barriers that we experience in our families or parishes and give us grace to live as the united people of God.
Anointed with the Spirit. Throughout the Old Testament, the Spirit came upon particular people at particular times to give them unique graces to accomplish a mission. Like a rushing wind that fills the sails of a boat, the Spirit empowered the judges of Israel, like Deborah and Gideon, to govern his people and lead them back to him (Judges 4–5; 6–8). The Spirit also rushed upon David when the prophet Samuel anointed him (1 Samuel 16:13), giving him wisdom and empowering him to fight with zealous courage in the strength of the Lord.
The Spirit called and equipped prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to hear the word of the Lord and proclaim it to God’s people. He gave these men visions and insights into God’s desire to bring Israel back to himself. Through Ezekiel, God promised to breathe his Spirit into the dead, dry bones of Israel and bring them to life again (37:1-14). And why would he do this? So that they would know that “I am the Lord” (37:14).
When we are trying to lead our families, the Spirit can equip us with wisdom and courage, just as he did with David. The Spirit will rush upon us with exactly what we need to fulfill our mission or vocation in life. And like Isaiah and Ezekiel, we can experience the Spirit breathing upon us and revealing hidden mysteries to us. The Spirit can enliven our prayer, illuminate the Scriptures, and inspire us to acts of love and obedience. The Spirit brings power and life every time we ask—and even when we don’t.
Renewing God’s People. It’s clear that the Holy Spirit isn’t just a New Testament phenomenon. By the power of the Spirit, God created the earth and created man and woman in his image. By the power of the Spirit, he formed a people, and by his Spirit, he anointed certain people to further his plan of salvation. In the New Testament, however, we will see the Spirit working in an even more personal way: in the womb of a young Jewish girl named Mary.