One saying we have in the English language is, ‘Don’t hold your breath!’ And what this basically means is, ‘Don’t get too excited about something – it might not happen, or not be as exciting as you think’.
Have you ever been in a situation where there was so much excitement, so much tension, so much suspense, that you held your breath? Sometimes that happens to be when I watch a movie or a good TV show. But then there are more serious moments in life, moments that cause us extreme stress, like when we witness something bad that’s about to happen – or we know something bad is going to happen to us, like when we trip, and though everything happens fast, our mind is like on slow motion – oh no. We forget to breathe. We hold our breath. That seems to be the most natural reaction of our bodies in stressful or suspenseful moments.
Now when we don’t breathe or don’t breathe properly, other things happen with our bodies as well – our blood pressure goes up, our muscles contract, and we get into the fight or flight mode. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it seems that, in stressful situations, not breathing is a life saver. Because our whole body, our whole being is on high alert, as it should be – we better not waste any energy in such a moment on breathing.
But overall, good breathing is important, as any yoga instructor or voice teacher will tell you.
I invite you to take a deep breath right now. Take a deep breath! How does that feel? There is something about the air we take in, the way we feel it fill our lungs, our body, how it refreshes us.
Now mostly we take breathing for granted. We just do it, from the moment we are born to the moment we die. In and out – during a lifespan of 80 years, we take about 673 million breaths. Our body, this most amazingly created machine, knows just what to do, even when we are asleep. I don’t think about it, I almost forget about it – unless the breathing is disturbed or interrupted. Breathing is life.
And I am sure those who ever had to fight for their breath know what I’m talking about. I am sure most of us had those moments, feeling quite literally like a fish out of water, gasping for air. Especially those who suffer from asthma or other allergies that impair their breathing know what I am talking about.
The worst thing about those breathless moments: it feels life-threatening. We all know we cannot survive without air, oxygen. And I don’t know about you, but I really panic when I feel: I cannot breathe. Breath is life.
Just think about the creation story, how God created Adam: Adam is but a lifeless pile of mud – until God breathes on him. God gives Adam the kiss of life.
Now life is so much more than just breathing and eating and drinking and procreating. The Hebrew word for breath is “ruah”. But ruah has more meanings than just breath: it means wind, whiff, and also: Spirit. God bestows the Spirit on Adam the moment God breathes on him. And it’s God’s Spirit that truly gives life, a life of purpose and fullness, a life of relationship.
So maybe we could say: not only without breath, but also without God’s Spirit, we are close to suffocating, in a figurative sense. Or, in really stressful situations, we may forget to really take in the Spirit of God deeply, and live quite frazzled and unfocused lives.
Just look at today’s Gospel: and, no, I don’t want to focus on doubting Thomas today, but on the other 10 disciples. The story begins on the day of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene, after coming back from the empty tomb, had told the disciples: He is risen. Rejoice, be happy, believe!
What do the disciples do? They lock themselves up in a house for fear. They don’t want to attract any attention, they try to keep a low profile. Jesus is risen, yet the disciples are full of fear, Spirit-less, lifeless, entombed in their locked four walls, entombed in their grief and fear, and also under an enormous amount of stress. I can imagine them fighting for each breath, now, that Jesus is not with them anymore. They are panicking: what are we going to do now? We are stuck here in Jerusalem, everybody knows what happened to Jesus, and the authorities are after us as well. Jesus brought us here, but he’s not gonna lead us out of this mess.
Where do we go from here? The purpose for our lives is gone. Our life, as we knew it, is over.
The locked doors are no obstacle for Jesus. Jesus manages to break through to them, into their tomb, into their fear, into their panic. And his first words: Peace be with you. The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom”; and again, just like “ruah”, it has a more profound meaning: shalom is healing, wholeness, well-being. Jesus says: be restored, be made whole again. Peace to you.
He then shows them his wounds, “and the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord”. Yet Jesus can feel a certain uneasiness among his followers, doubt maybe, because he says again: Peace, shalom, be with you. You need to be whole and strong and full of life, because as the Father has sent me, so I send you.
And, just as God breathes onto Adam and brings him to life, Jesus breathes onto the disciples, and gives them the kiss of life. Jesus resurrects the disciples who are buried under grief and disappointment and despair and fear. His Spirit brings them back from the dead to the living. They can breathe and live freely again – and go out and continue the work of their master.
The great news of Easter is: Jesus has conquered death. His own death, but also death in general. Your death. My death. Jesus conquered all the things and feelings we connect with death: fear. Total darkness. Total silence. The separation from the ones we love. The separation from God. Forsakenness.
And I strongly believe that we don’t have to wait for some far heaven to experience the newness of life Jesus promises, no: new life hits us right here, right now already. Jesus comes to the disciples at a point when they were dead in Spirit, discouraged, breathless, and inspires, in-spirits them. Jesus prepares them for a new life, a life of calling, a life of service to God and the neighbor. On the same token I believe that Jesus manages to break through to us, into the darkness, desperation, sorrow and fear that threaten to bury us alive and suffocate us.
Today’s gospel reminds us how important it is to take in the breath, the Spirit God offers – to be kissed back to life – so that God’s shalom can embrace us und lift us up and make us whole and strong again.
Maybe it happens on a breezy day on a beach. Maybe it happens in your quiet chamber, when you consciously breathe in and breathe out. Maybe it happens while you take a deep breath in order to prepare for singing a great song of praise – or sorrow.
But when it happens: suck it in, this breath, this whiff, this wind, this spirit of God, and let it enliven you. This world, and God’s church, needs this renewing breath of life each and every day. This world, and God’s church, need the life-giving spirit in order to tackle the issues that challenge us. We need to take it in, deeply, in order to remain focused on what is required from us, here and now: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. This is what Easter is all about. This is what a new life n Christ is about.
So may peace and the life-giving Spirit of God be with you – always.
This post is also available in: German