He Breathed On Them

By Kristeen Bruun

“He breathed on them…”  (John 20:22)

I don’t think I’ve ever understood this passage as completely as I do now, when we’re doing our best not to breathe on each other. 

Recently I was working with a friend, performing a task together while practicing social distancing. At one point, he said, “I hope I don’t smell too bad. I haven’t taken a shower yet today.”

“You’re fine,” I assured him. “This social distancing stuff is good for something.”

That’s what started me thinking. We each have a unique smell. We’re usually only conscious of it when it’s negative, like my friend thinking, “I really need a shower,” or “Whew! She’s wearing too much perfume.”

But, in fact, no two of us smell exactly alike. That’s why our dogs can easily find us in the dark, and why bloodhounds, the dogs with hypersensitive noses, can sometimes track people over miles.

When I had to take care of a friend’s cat while Mike had surgery, I asked him to wear a t-shirt and not wash it, and bring it with the cat in the cat carrier. Daniel, the cat, had a lot of options, but he slept in the carrier every night.

In spite of our not being conscious of it, one of the functions of a handshake is to bring us into each other’s “smell aura.” It’s one way that we know that we’re OK together. For a number of weeks, we have been deprived of this contact, and this deprivation is part of the stress of the Covid-19 situation.

We are hard-wired this way.

When we were created, the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Male and female God created us, designed us to share in each other’s breath. What else is a kiss?

Often when a spouse must be long absent or has died, the partner will hold onto some article of clothing that contains the smell of the beloved, and be to some extent consoled.

Thus it should not be a surprise that the Holy Spirit (who breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation) comes to the apostles in the form of Jesus’ breath.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)

Isn’t this passage reminiscent of the initial breathing into life in Genesis? As we were created by the breath of God, so we are re-created by Jesus for our life in the Holy Spirit.

This life was meant to be lived in community, described by Luke in the Book of Acts: “All the believers were of one heart and one mind.” Now it’s true that I sometimes struggle with community life. Our dominant culture emphasizes individualism so intensely. Nonetheless, now that my community life is taken away, I miss it.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God,” says Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16). So there’s another breath for me to inhale. I am finding myself more intensely in the Word than ever before, and that’s a gift, although it’s not exactly the same as tumbling around with my fellow creatures in community.

But it’s easier for me to go through something if I understand it. I miss breathing the same air as other who are filled with the Spirit. John 20:22 helps me understand why: as humans we were designed for shared Spirit-breathing.

So for now, I pray:

Jesus, thank you for breathing your Spirit into me. Help me to live with this time of distance. I’m not even going to ask you for the gift of “soon.” If this is what I’m called to do, may I have the grace to do it well. Bring us back together in your good time, please.

And help that to be my time as well.

In your name. Amen.

Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash

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