What if Pentecost is less about the descent of the Holy Spirit from outside of us and more about the ascent of the Sacred Breath within us?
The rise of yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness strategies in the West has taught us that the thing we take most for granted is the very stuff of miracles. The most ordinary part of our human experience – one we usually aren’t even conscious is happening – is actually a superpower that makes those in the Marvel universe look like the frail, elderly members of grandma’s knitting circle.
Simply breathing in and out may be the closest we mortals ever come to conjuring magic.
Pentecost celebrates Jesus giving his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower them in their ministry after he was no longer physically present. “[ esus] said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit'” (John 20:20-21).
I find it fascinating that the Spirit was delivered via Jesus’ breath.
We humans tend to assume that our factory settings all point to “empty.” We think our natural state is one of “lacking.” So, our chief priority in life is to fill ourselves with stuff we need that comes from outside of ourselves: food and drink, sure, but also things like knowledge and wisdom, approval and connection, courage and cunning, la laughter and joy. In many ways, we are programmed to consume as an antidote to this emptiness.
It makes sense then that we would discuss God’s Spirit as something bestowed upon us from “outside.” Pentecost is frequently depicted in art as a dove descending upon the disciples.
But what if the Holy Spirit didn’t have to “come down” from anywhere? What if Pentecost is really about the disciples discovering that, through their experience of Jesus, God was profoundly, deeply, already present within. . . and surprise! God’s been there all along! We just didn’t understand that before.
The Blessing of Breath
It’s no accident that the Latin root for “spirit” is the word for “breath.” Our breath is so elemental, so intimate, so central to our existence. It’s active and cyclical – in and out, in and out – not static or inert. It’s generative, life-sustaining, adaptable. It’s the first and last thing we do in life, the alpha and omega of our unique adventure in living.
Most of all, our breath is within us. It’s not something we download from outside of ourselves. It’s not something other than who we already are. Instead, it’s the deep-down engine of our existence, the substance of our very selves.
This week, the eighth graders I have been working with at my parish will experience the Sacrament of Confirmation. The archbishop will lay his hands on the young people and pray, “Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide. Give them the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of right judgment and courage, the Spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the Spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.”
Descent of the Holy Spirit
And this wording is perfectly fine. It makes sense, given our usual worldview. When our default setting is “lacking,” we need God to “fill us up.” But what if abundance rather than scarcity is the organizing principle of the universe?
Perhaps the Holy Spirit isn’t something that gets received. Maybe it’s something that gets recognized. If that’s the case, then salvation is less about getting something we don’t already have and more about remembering who and what we already are.
Does it make a difference which interpretation we choose? The version dealing with what’s “received” certainly aligns with the wording in our rites and catechism. The version dealing with what’s “recognized” may seem too “out there” to many.
But to my way of thinking, Jesus preached a gospel of abundance, where a couple of loaves and fishes feed thousands, and water becomes countless jugs of fine wine. For me, Pentecost isn’t about the Spirit coming down upon us; it’s about us rising up to recognize the divine nature of our most authentic selves.