Life-Giving Breath

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” ~ John 20:21-22

I woke up in a general patient room at Mercy Hospital. My body was tired after spending most of the night in the emergency room with mom who was having heart pain. I kept my eyes closed as I consciously drew in my first long breath of air for the day. I slowly released my breath and deeply inhaled the next. It felt good to breathe after last night.

I gently opened my eyes and scanned the clean, sterile hospital room. I shifted my weight in the recliner that I had slept in, and my eyes moved to Mom in a hospital bed.

“Good morning!” she said enthusiastically with an IV dangling from her wrist. I jumped a little at the crisp sound of her voice. I expected her to be less chirpy. “Hello, Mom,” I replied.

“You were really out of it,” Mom said. “You were sleeping like a log.”

“Was I snoring so loud that I woke you up?” “No, you were just sleeping soundly,” Mom said.

A couple of weeks later, after Mom exhaled her last breath, I revisited our early morning conversation while I was silently breathing in and out during my morning prayer time. What was Mom doing up so early in the morning? I breathed in, held the thought, and let it go on the exhale. I breathed in again and slowly released my breath. Is anything more peaceful and refreshing as a deep breath of fresh air? Why was Mom up so early that morning after spending most of the night in the E.R.? How long had she been watching me sleep?

A thought came to me. “Mom was watching her baby boy sleep one more time.” How many times did Mom gently rock me to sleep as she watched my breath rise and fall? How many times did she wake up in the middle of the night, walk over to my crib, and observe my breath until she was sure I was O.K.?

That morning at Mercy Hospital, with the oxygen tube connected to Mom’s nose, giving her air, she was watching me breathe. “You were sleeping soundly,” Mom peacefully said.

Breath is life. “It is the first and last ‘word’ we will ever utter—most likely without ever knowing it,” says Father Richard Rohr.

When it was evening on that first Easter day, we find the disciples locked up in a room out of fear. What happened to Jesus might happen to them. Imagine their fearful breath—quick, short, and shallow. The fear prevents them from catching their breath. Jesus appears and notices their breathing.

“Peace be with you,” he says. Take a deep breath and just breathe. Everything is going to be O.K. Just breathe. Trust me. Maybe the disciples consciously breathe in slowly and deeply for the first time. Try it.

Jesus shows them his wounds. It’s as if he is saying, “See, I’m O.K. Everything is all right.” Rohr says Jesus is telling the disciples and us, “You can be wounded and resurrected at the same time.” Just breathe and let your wounds transform you.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says again. Then, in one of the more beautiful images in scripture, Jesus breaths on the disciples and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). The Spirit is breath. Jesus breathes onto the disciples the fruits of his Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see Galatians 5:22).

His breath is their breath. Our breath is Christ’s breath. “Christ literally breathes shalom and forgiveness into the universal air (John 20:22-23). We get to add our own finishing touches of love, our own life breath to the Great Breath,” writes Rohr.

As those we love exhale their last breath, may we receive their breath, the fruits of the spirit that they have received from Christ. May we breathe peace in and peace out. May we watch over each other’s breath.

Blessings and peace,