Intimate Breath, Intimate Wounds
Last Sunday, we were in a garden, with the sunlight beginning to break through the branches and the breeze rustling the leaves as the risen Christ spoke Mary Magdalene’s name.
This Sunday, we are in a locked room, perhaps with a streak of evening sunlight cutting through shutters and lamplight licking at the walls as the risen Lord appears among the fearful apostles all of a sudden and speaks peace to them.
Two quite different scenes and stories. But both are imbued with a profound sense of humanity, with a deep mystery and a glorious intimacy. That last ingredient — the intimacy of the way the risen Jesus relates to his disciples — leapt off the page for me this week. In this era in which we’ve got used to the necessity of social distancing and wearing masks, the sheer physical intimacy of Jesus’ interactions with the apostles, which might have seemed commonplace before, becomes startling and unsettling as well as a comfort bulging with hope.
What unsettled me first of all was the fact that, after Jesus greets the disciples, proves his identity through his wounds and commissions them, he breathes on them and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (verse 22).
He breathes on them. The past 13 months have made us all much more aware of what we breathe out and what we breathe in. Our lives and the lives of those we love may well depend on our being careful about what we breathe out and what we breathe in. At times, this has turned some of the most mundane places in our lives — the supermarket, for instance — into places of fear. In that experience, there is something of a small analogy with the disciples’ situation: we share with them a reticence to move around out of concern for our safety.
While the Jewish authorities are breathing out threats, Jesus breathes on the disciples bringing to them the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of peace and boldness. This feels at once unsettling and comforting. It unsettles me because I can’t help think about the virus. And I can’t help think about how it would be wonderful to be close enough to the friends and family I’ve seen only via Zoom for them to breathe on me like that.
But it should unsettle us too because Jesus’ breathing imbues the disciples with the unruly, unshackled, unshackling power of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation. The Spirit who blows where she will. The Spirit who overturns the order of the world, setting free the captives, exalting the lowly and reversing death itself.
However, this gift of the Spirit is comfort too. Jesus’ breathing on the disciples in this way links the Spirit directly to him. The Greek word for ‘spirit’ can also ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, just as is the case with the Hebrew word. Perhaps we could just as well render the line: ‘Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Breath.”’
This breath is holy because it is the breath of God. This breath is comfort because it means that God is intimate with the disciples and they are intimate with God. It is God that they breathe in and breathe out.
Christ still breathes on the church. Christ still breathes on us and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
Easter is not just some mystical hope for the future of our souls and bodies; it is the about the real presence of Christ, the real intimacy of God with us here and now and every day. It is about the breath of God filling us with ‘life anew’ each and every day.
How can we be intimate with Christ if we do not recognise him? It seems the disciples, and not just Thomas, had trouble knowing who Jesus was. We read that, when all the disciples bar Thomas were together with the door barred:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (verses 19–20)
Notice the order of things here: Jesus came, Jesus spoke, Jesus showed them his wounds, then ‘they rejoiced when they saw the Lord’. It is almost as if they didn’t see him until he showed them his hands and side.
Perhaps, like me, you have focused in the past on Jesus showing his wounds to Thomas. Poor Thomas: he gets a bad rap for wanting no more, really, than the proof that his fellow apostles had already seen. Proof of something really rather incredible. But Thomas’s insistence highlights for us the function that Jesus’ wounds play in this narrative: they are the markers of his identity, the means by which all the disciples recognise him.
We don’t know exactly what Jesus did: ‘showed’ could mean he simply displayed his wounds and pointed them out. That may well be what is implied, although it could be that he invited them, as he does with Thomas, to touch him. Likewise, we don’t know whether Thomas did touch Jesus’ wounds, although I think the text implies he didn’t: he simply and emphatically recognised the risen Christ as ‘My Lord and my God’ (verse 28).
There is little that can be more intimate and vulnerable than showing someone else your wounds. Our wounds shape us, even though they don’t and shouldn’t wholly define us. When I think about Christ’s vulnerability, I’ve been apt to think mostly of the crucifixion. Seldom if ever have I considered the risen Christ as vulnerable. But here we have it: Jesus on the day of his resurrection is being as vulnerable as one can be to another human being.
God incarnate shows us his wounds. It is God’s desire to be that intimate with us. And we remember those wounds every time we break bread in the Eucharist. So when we stretch out our hands and our hearts to receive the sacrament, we reach out in response to Christ’s invitation to be intimate with him, to know his wounds, to recognise him as our Lord and God.
If he, our Lord and God, displays his wounds to us, we ought to be able to show our wounds to each other. The church should be a community in which we can open up about our own brokenness, can be open to one another’s brokenness. Not in ways that continue to wound but in ways that move us towards healing. For it is in that brokenness that we see Christ in each other.
We speak in our liturgy of being united in the sign of the Living Bread being broken. In that moment of fraction — of breaking — our own brokenness meets Christ’s brokenness and all these wounds can become a source of freedom, freedom such as that Thomas found to stand against his own fear, against the power of the authorities and alongside the wounded and gloriously resurrected Christ. May we know that freedom this Eastertide and in every season.