By Sam Hamilton-Poore - May 22, 2009
"Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When Jesus had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
When we think of Pentecost, we tend to remember the account given in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: a rush of violent wind, sweeping through the room in which the frightened disciples are gathered; tongues "as of fire" descending upon their heads; men and women filling the crowded morning streets of Jerusalem, proclaiming the gospel fluently in a perplexing array of languages. This, we say, was how the Christian church was born-a public, compelling, miraculous display of overwhelming, divine power. A musical equivalent to this episode from Acts is Gustav Mahler's setting of the hymn, "Veni, Creator Spiritus". Timpani, brass, organ, and full-throated choir: fire, flame, wind.
Lately, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, I tend to draw my personal inspiration more from the version of Pentecost found in John's Gospel, Chapter 20. The Risen Jesus appears to his disciples and, after blessing them with his peace, breathes upon them. The Greek word for "breath" is pneuma, also translated as "spirit". Jesus in-spirits/inspires them with his own breath/spirit/Spirit-then he authorizes them for the mission of forgiving sins. Perhaps a musical equivalent to John's Pentecost is the setting of "Veni, Creator Spiritus" by Hildegaard of Bingen. Listen here. Women's voices, a cappella, quietly rising and falling.
Closer to us than our own breath and breathing, the Risen Christ fills us with his own Spirit-quietly, intimately. With this breath, this power, we then go about the everyday, unspectacular, grubby work (and it is work) of forgiveness. Breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive.
Somehow I find John's Pentecost more compelling than Acts. Although we often long for the dazzling or spectacular, we live in a time, a world, in need of people who breathe in, regularly, the quiet power and grace of Christ's Spirit-and people who, likewise, breathe out, regularly, the power and grace of forgiveness. Our world-so spectacularly broken and burning-needs people for whom reconciliation is as normal and natural as breathing.
"Breathe on us, Holy Spirit. Breathe on us breath of God."