Wild Lectionary: The Coming of the Holy Breath

Djordje Alfirevic – Breath of Earth, CC 3.0 License


Acts 2:2-21
John 7:37-39
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

By Ragan Sutterfield

They were gathered for a festival of word and wheat, the harvest of plants grown from soil–breathing carbon, exhaling oxygen. Beneath the soil, the plant roots had spread a sugar feast for microbes who in turn gave their bodies for the wheat’s growth.  Those plants had now gone to seed, passing on their life to another season’s crop and in their abundance there was a harvest of bread for people and seed for birds and field mice and the life upon life that lives close to the ground.  It was at a festival for all these interactions, joined with a celebration of the coming of the Torah, those books that offered the story of a God who gives life to soil and cares about every detail of the material world.  The festival was Shavuot, Pentecost. 

It was into that festival that God sent the Holy Breath, the gaseous person of God, to give new life. The world had lived from its first days from respiration, God the bellows breathing into it all.  Our selection from Psalm 104 says as much:

You send forth your Spirit [Breath], and they are created;
and so you renew the face of the earth.
(v.31, NRSV)

All of those exchanges of gas, the plants trading carbon dioxide and oxygen with animals, the anaerobic processes beneath the mud releasing methane, all were involved in a greater exchange with the God who made all and breathed all into life.

But that breath had become like the air on a hot Chicago day, when the ozone is thick on the earth and even the healthy wheeze with asthma.  The great exchange had been given over to exploitation, the common had become the commercial.  The world needed a new breath and so the Holy Breath came on Peter and the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, burning off the dangerous air so that living breath could be had again. It was that new breath that Jesus promised would flow like “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) to quench the thirst of those whose water had run dry—bottled, sold, and shipped elsewhere.  Now with this new breath, living water would come from the “believer’s heart,” a place beyond all shutoffs.

How can breath bring flowing rivers?  Any arid lands ecologist will tell you that healthy grasslands, breathing soil, and respiring trees can draw water from the depths, returning water to long dry creek beds. When Jesus breathes on his disciples, giving them the Holy Breath, he is opening up the respiration necessary for those rivers to spring from their hearts—rivers that will burst forth in all the gurgling languages of the earth on the Day of Pentecost.

There had been a time when the people of the Earth had worked to create a civilization, a tower through which they would achieve Godlike status. Their ambitions would have overshadowed all creatures and so God confused their languages. Even with this division and divide, however, the people had overwhelmed the world:

“…all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

So, Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in his poem “God’s Grandeur.” We call it the Anthropocene, the human age, because the impact of the human species has made its mark not only with our culture, but even in the geologic layers of earth history. We have become a world force, drawing our many languages into the single language of commerce and capitalism.  With those forces our industry has breathed a breath that means not life, but death for the world.  We call this breath “carbon” for short, but it is nothing more than the negative breath of lives beyond limits.

It is into this world of deathly exhalations that the Holy Breath comes.  Rather than unifying the many languages into one, it is a Spirit that can speak to all in their own tongue.  It is indigenous in that it can live according to the language of the place it enters, not forcing the place to conform to its gridlines and speech patterns. And so in this world bent toward Babel, all under the shadow of the teetering tower, the Holy Breath gives life.  As Hopkins writes,

“And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Ragan Sutterfield lives in the Lower-Arkansas River Watershed at the intersection of the Mississippi Delta and Ouachita Mountain bioregions. This land was once home and hunting grounds for the Quapaw, Osage, and Caddo people. Ragan is an Episcopal priest and the author of Wendell Berry and the Given Life.

Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, priest in charge of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.

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