A Season of Breathing
Photo by Ashish Thakur
“Please, I can’t breathe.”
From the pandemic to Pentecost, we have focused on breathing. In the midst of this, the death of George Floyd on May 25th has left us all breathless.
His cry, gasping for oxygen whilst his airways were being crushed, was heard beyond the streets where he died. A cry that has ignited mass demonstrations and protests across a nation. How should we hear this cry? A cry for union? Or a cry for division?
The ongoing pandemic has brought extensive attention to act of breathing. The theme of breathing is relevant for the Christian faithful, as well. The Sunday following Ascension marked Pentecost, commemorated as the beginning of the Church when the Holy Spirit, the Divine Breath, filled Mary and the Apostles in the Upper Room (Acts 2:4).
The state of emergency, now extended until late June in Ontario, has continued to close all houses of worship, including Catholic churches where many parishioners have not received the sacraments since mid-March. In fact, an entire liturgical season – Eastertide from Easter Sunday to Pentecost - has passed without public observance.
Vigil Masses, intended to commemorate important days of the liturgical calendar, are rarely observed; a reality present even before the pandemic. Certain feasts have specific Vigil Masses: Christmas, Easter, feast of Sts. Peter & Paul, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, are to name a few with Easter being the best known.
There remains a hidden jewel with the scarcely known Pentecost Vigil Mass. Like Easter, the extended vigil includes seven readings from the Old Testament.
The first reading is from the creation account of Genesis; the creation of man “from the dust” and the woman from “his ribs” are recalled (Gen 2:7, 21). Most striking, however, is the coupling of breath and life: “[God] breathed into his nostrils … and the man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7). Certainly, not the most pandemic-friendly passage.
Even before the creation of man, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen 1:2; NIV). A derivative of the Latin spiritus, meaning breath, the passage is also translated as “breath of God”. The very breath breathed into Adam, the breath of life, is the Holy Spirit who exists in the communion of the love and life between the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit, which ultimately gives life to Adam, allowed him to participate in the mystery of the Triune communion of God. The divine Breath of Life given to man so that he may breathe. In Pentecost, it was the same Divine Breath which descended upon the Apostles in the Cenacle.
Our local chaplain recalled how the created world is not immune to the corruption of sin and thus even the life-giving act of breathing may have been infected by the spiritual virus. A reality evident as breathing has become a potential medium of transfer for the SARS-CoV2 virus.
George Floyd begged to breathe as he was suffocating. To view the video of his death is to share in the loss of breath, the asphyxia of hope. However, if removing one’s ability to breathe, has the power to render them lifeless then the very act of breathing can give them life.
The Pentecost Vigil Mass highlights this through the prophetic vision of Ezekiel over the Valley of the Dry Bones. The vision recalls the breath entering the dry bones, the people of Israel, in order that the people and the nation may be restored: “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land [Israel].” (Ezekiel 37:14).
The global pandemic has revealed trepidation over breathing. The death of George Floyd has revealed a desire to breathe. The readings from the Pentecost Vigil Mass have revealed God’s breath – present before man, bringing forth life, reviving a people and a nation – which is needed now more than ever. The Holy Spirit, the Divine Breath, reveals the relationship between breath and life. Where there is breath there is life, where there is life there is hope.
Through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we can hear the cry for unity amidst cries of division. Sowing the seeds of peace, forgiveness, and charity, the Holy Spirit will breathe life to restore a people and a nation. It is the Holy Spirit Who will provide that which George Floyd ardently desired, life giving breath.