One of the awful effects of the coronavirus for some people who catch it is that it leaves them struggling for breath. The worst affected have to be put on a ventilator to help with their breathing. Breathing is something we so take for granted and seldom think about until our ability to draw breath is affected.
It seems that the average person at rest takes about 16 breaths per minute. This means we breathe about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year – unless, of course, we take a lot of exercise. However, on average, the person who lives to 80 will take about 672,768,000 breaths in a lifetime.
Breath is life and life ends as the last breath is drawn. So in our Mass today we might think about those who are struggling for breath – whether it is those suffering from asthma, lung disease, including those who are anxiously waiting for lung transplants, or the dreaded coronavirus,
In the Gospel for today’s Mass St John describes the Risen Jesus appearing to his disciples and breathing over them as he told them to “receive the Holy Spirit”. This action of Jesus has parallels with the account of the creation of the first human beings in the Garden of Eden, as described in the first book of the Bible:
God fashioned man of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being”. (Genesis 2: 7)
By breathing over his disciples Jesus was evoking God creating the first human beings. He did it to signify that he was forming a new creation of people animated by his Spirit. You and I are members of that very body of people founded by Christ and which we call the Church.
Not all the disciples were present for this founding moment. Thomas, who had refused to believe what the others told him, was absent but he got the chance a week later to meet the risen Jesus in person. When they met, Jesus went out of his way to gently provide him with the proof he wanted. He did not reproach him for his doubt. Neither does he reproach us when we doubt. Then Thomas made this declaration of faith in Jesus, which was the original ending of this Gospel: “My Lord and my God”. This statement is the essence of what we in the Church aspire to believe about Jesus.
After Thomas’ declaration of faith, Jesus replies: “You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Here Jesus is distinguishing between ‘seeing’ him and ‘believing’ in him. We usually say that ‘seeing is believing’. Not so here. The ‘seeing’ is the physical, scientific proof that Thomas wanted and got. Believing is something different. It’s trust or faith in someone or something without proof, without ‘knowing’ for certain. Christians believe without seeing. St Paul puts it this way: ‘We go by faith and not by sight’ – we believe in Christ and the Life he gives us without physical evidence that science craves.
On the other hand, Carl Yung, a renowned Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist (he died in 1961) was once asked in a TV interview about his Christian faith. When a young boy he acknowledged that his father had ‘made him’ go to church. When asked if, in old age, he still believed, he paused … and then said: ‘[It is] difficult to answer … I know … I don’t need to believe. I know.”
O for that certainty!
In the Second Reading, St Peter calls us to have for joy “even though you may for a short time have to bear being plagued by all sorts of trials”. We are in the midst of a plague now – day 26 of isolation – and it is difficult to rejoice while so many are sick and dying, and many others are suffering physical, mental, social and financial hardships. We may be going “by faith and not by sight” but we have the breath of the risen Christ in us. We are not alone – we are united to him and each other – and in our network of prayer we support each other and offer practical assistance where we can to anyone in need.
May the Lord who gently strengthened the faith of the apostle Thomas come to us in our struggles and lead us on.
Holy Name, Jesmond
19 April 2020.