At Pentecost the followers of Jesus receive the Holy Spirit and are transformed from being disciples (students) to being apostles (those who are sent). They have become a New Israel—a New Age has begun—one that continues to this day. It’s a new beginning with cosmic significance as well as significance for salvation history. This significance is pointed to by the imagery of wind and breath of life as spirit of God. As the disciples were gathered there was a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind . . . like cloven tongues of fire that sat upon each of them . . . they were filled with the Holy Spirit (breath). (Acts 2.2-4)
The symbolism of wind and breath (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma and pnoes in Greek) recall Old Israel’s initial Creation story, as told in the first chapter of Genesis. While the earth was a formless void a wind from God swept over the face of the waters (Gen 1.2) In the second Creation story that immediately follows the first in Genesis God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen 2.7). This is literally inspiration—God breaths into Adam God’s own breath and Adam becomes a living creature—divine inspiration precedes human respiration. And similarly at Pentecost the Holy Spirit breathes new life into the disciples, coming to them in cloven tongues of wind similar to those of fire—the tongues are both connected and distinct. They breathe upon the disciples together and separately, individually and corporately. A new beginning. Creation 2.0
And that inspiring remains with us today. The Holy Spirit breathes life into the Church as a whole as well as into its individual members. (When I first inquired about the Episcopal Church with a priest who was Anglo Catholic he said, “The Church is not an organization but an organism.” In other words, a living being breathed into—inspired and taught—by the Holy Spirit, the breath of God.)
We see today the close connection between breath and physical life. In the acute form of the COVID-19 infection, the ability of lung tissue to take in oxygen is compromised, in a condition called pneumonia. Lack of the breath of life results in death. But the presence of the breath of life allows life to continue, indeed to flourish.
The breath of God is physically life-giving and life sustaining, as shown by the inspiration of Adam. It is also spiritually life giving and life sustaining, as shown by the inspiration of the Church at Pentecost. Today among us there is mighty power in God’s continuing to breathe into us God’s breath of life. Pentecost is still with us and in us now, as individuals and in the whole Church, through the life giving inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington