One of the worst effects of catching the coronavirus is its leaving people struggling for breath and needing to be put on a ventilator. Breathing is something we seldom think about – it comes to us naturally from the moment we are born – 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.
So as we hear in the Gospel for Mass today of Jesus breathing over his disciples when he appeared to them after his resurrection, we might remember those who are struggling for breath – whether it is those suffering from asthma, lung disease, those anxiously waiting for lung transplants, or those who have caught the coronavirus. And we can remember also Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who took his last breath on Friday morning, two months before his 100th birthday.
(Would Jesus breathe over his followers if he were alive in this time of pandemic? Will we ever blow out candles again if we are to share a birthday cake with people not in our bubble?)
As he did so he said to them “receive the Holy Spirit”. Why this breathing over them? Because it has parallels with the Biblical account of the creation of the first human beings (Adam and Eve) in the Garden of Eden, described thus 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 deliberately evoking God’s first creation of human life. By imitating this action Jesus was signifying that a new, second creation was being formed, in this case of people animated by his breath/life or Spirit. All who have been baptised into this new second creation – the Church – have that very breath of Christ’s life flowing in us.
As we have heard, not all his disciples were present when Jesus appeared. 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 give Thomas the proof he needed. Jesus did not criticise him for his doubt and in our moments of doubts we believe he does not reproach us either. In response to his acceptance, Thomas declared to Jesus: “My Lord and my God”. This moment marked the original ending of this (John’s) Gospel and it remains today the summary statement of what we in the Church believe: Jesus is ‘my Lord and my God’.
Jesus then says to Thomas “you believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe”. For Thomas, ‘seeing was believing’, ‘seeing’ being the physical, scientific proof he needed before he could believe that the Lord as truly risen. However, for us believing is not dependant on seeing as belief is based on trust without proof, without ‘knowing’ for certain. As St Paul reminds us: ‘We go by faith and not by sight’ – we believe in Christ without the physical evidence that science craves. Faith in this sense is ‘a leap into the dark’ and not everyone is able to have it.
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 he was a young boy he said 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!
May the Lord who gently welcomed and strengthened the faith of the apostle Thomas come to us in our struggles and lead us on.Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
19 April 2020