At the age of five, my grandnephew Charlie was already a seasoned cowboy. But even seasoned cowboys can sometimes get thrown from a horse, especially if the rider is caught off balance when the horse “spooks”—cowboy language for a sudden rearing or sideward lunge when something scares the horse.
The ride was over and Charlie was ready to dismount, when Sundance spooked, landing Charlie on the ground beneath the hind legs of the half-ton animal. A hoof slammed down on his skull. Blood shot from Charlie’s nostrils and ears, and his little body turned limp and breathless. His father sped to his side and began blowing into his mouth. A three-minute eternity passed until Charlie at last regained his breath. Helicopter, emergency room, skilled doctors, and intense family prayer did the rest. Charlie went on to play football for his school. But life began again with his breath.
When I begin a talk on the Holy Spirit, I sometimes ask the members of the audience to hold their breath for as long as they can. As one by one they let go in this gentle contest, they are reminded how precious their breath is, and how utterly dependent upon it they are. To breathe is to live.
No doubt that is why God, wanting to tell us what his Holy Spirit is, chose our life-breath as a primal image. Already in the earliest pages of the Old Testament we see that image emerging. How does Genesis describe the creation of the first man? God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (2:7). Other tribes and groups of people were aware that man was essentially different from the material world and the animals and that he belonged to a higher realm. In the Babylonian creation myth, man is made of clay mixed with the blood of the gods. But in the Genesis account, the combination is more spiritual—literally, because in Hebrew and in Greek, breath and spirit are closely related, sometimes even synonyms. God doesn’t lose any blood; he doesn’t even lose his breath when he gives it away. But if man is a living being, it is because God has given him the breath of life.
On the day of his resurrection, Jesus relived the Genesis story in a powerful, dramatic way. Appearing to his disciples, he first wished them peace, and then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-22). Why did he use the gesture of breathing on them? He wanted to tell them that the church, taken from men who were still quite earthbound like Adam, was the beginning of a new humanity because Jesus was giving his own breath, the Holy Spirit, to fill them with his own divine life.
The Eternal Breath of God
Is it too much to think of the Holy Spirit as the breath of Jesus? The evangelist John didn’t think so. For in describing the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, he didn’t say that Jesus “breathed his last” (Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46) or “he gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). Rather, John said, “He handed over the Spirit” (John 19:30). The fourth evangelist, who looked for deep, symbolic meaning in the events of Jesus’ life, saw something more in this moment than just the end of Jesus’ life. The last breath of Jesus was the first breath of the Spirit for the little community huddled at the foot of the cross. The Holy Spirit was given not merely through the resurrection of Jesus but also through the death of Jesus on the cross! If you are asking for the Holy Spirit, you are asking Jesus to breathe on you!
There is more here than meets the eye. Does Jesus’ breath tell us something beyond the human drama played out in these gospel scenes? Does it reveal something about the inner mystery of God, the holy Trinity? Indeed it does. We know that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. At the Last Supper, Jesus said that he would send the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). And the same word, “proceed,” is used in the Book of Revelation for the river of life-giving water flowing from God and the Lamb (Revelation 22:1). But we know that the Son also proceeds from the Father (John 17:8; 20:21). In the midst of debates about the Trinity, later church councils clarified how the proceeding of the Spirit differs from that of the Son. The Son, they defined, proceeds from the Father by way of generation, the Holy Spirit by way of the mutual spiration of the Father and the Son (Council of Florence, A.D. 1439). Spiration means breathing forth. The Father and the Son breathe forth the Holy Spirit. Think of two lovers breathing forth together their sigh of mutual love. That is what the Father and the Son are doing continually and eternally. Their one sigh of love is the person of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus breathed the Spirit from the cross, when he breathed upon the disciples from his risen body, and when he breathes on us, he was—and is—doing in time what he does with the Father eternally in the intimate mystery of the Trinity. Jesus’ breath is the eternal breath of God! Could anything more wonderful be imagined?
This article is an excerpt from Holy Spirit, Make Your Home in Me: Biblical Meditations on Receiving the Gift of the Spirit by George T. Montague, SM (The Word Among Us Press, 2008). Available at wau.org/books