The Breath of God

Homily for the Solemnity of Pentecost, 2022.

An aspect of physics which science-fiction films routinely ignore is that it is impossible to make or hear sound in space. Ships whizzing by, laser canons firing, battle stations exploding—all of this would happen silently if science-fiction was determined by science-fact. Because the atoms in space are so far apart, and because sound waves depend on matter to propagate, the sound of space is the sound of silence. If you suddenly found yourself in the vacuum of space, and you opened your mouth to speak—or, more likely, scream—you would not make a sound. 

On as seemingly unrelated note: A couple weeks ago, I had my first asthma attack. I had the window open in my bedroom and a fan was blowing the cool night air across my face. I was trying to fall asleep, and I suddenly found myself struggling to breathe. I knew what it was right away: allergy induced asthma. I had experienced Spring allergies since I was in second grade, but I never had this symptom before. My breathing was shallow and labored, interrupted by bouts of heavy coughing. But I knew what was behind it: the pollen-laden air that had been blowing across my face. 

Having enough air to speak, and being able to breathe in that air in order to speak, are usually things we take for granted. But if you were to suddenly find yourself in the vacuum of space, or if you’ve ever found yourself struggling to breathe, the fact and necessity of air would and do become immediately apparent. Air is not life itself, nor is it identical with the words we speak, but without air we cannot speak, and we will eventually die. Air is but a humble intermediary, a kind of delivery driver. We care about more about the package that the delivery driver brings than the driver himself, but without the driver the package would never arrive. Without air, our words would never reach those we are speaking to. 

God the Father has a Word that He wishes to speak to us. And that Word is His Son, Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the Breath of God that carries His Word. If Jesus is the Gift, the Package, that the Father has sent us, then the Holy Spirit is the delivery driver. We may pay more attention to the Gift we are sent, we may focus more of our attention on Jesus, but we would not have Jesus, nor would we know Him, without the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this: “The Spirit…makes us hear the Father’s Word, but we do not hear the Spirit himself. We know him only in the movement by which he reveals the Word to us and disposes us to welcome him in faith” (CCC 687). 

The Holy Spirit is the one who overshadowed Mary, and it was through the Holy Spirit that she conceived of Jesus in her womb. And so the Holy Spirit was with Jesus, dwelling in His human soul, from the moment of His conception. When the Holy Spirit came down upon Him in the form of a dove at His Baptism, it’s not as if the Holy Spirit hadn’t been with Jesus until that moment. Jesus already had the Holy Spirit. What happened at His baptism was a revelation of what happens at our baptism. For unlike Jesus, we do not have the Holy Spirit dwelling in our soul from the moment of our conception. But we do have this indwelling of the Holy Spirit from the moment of our baptism. 

When Jesus began His public ministry, he went to the synagogue in His hometown, picked up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me” (Lk. 4:18). Jesus used this image of being anointed with oil to describe how intimate His relationship was with the Holy Spirit. Oil does not remain on the surface of our skin, but sinks in and penetrates our skin, becoming inseparable with it. Even so, the Holy Spirit was inseparably united with Christ. And we, as baptized—and some of us, confirmed—Christians, share in this inseparable relationship with the Holy Spirit, so long as we do not drive this Divine Guest from our soul by mortal sin. When we are anointed with Sacred Chrism at our Confirmation, this relationship with the Holy Spirit is strengthened and sealed. The Holy Spirit sinks into and penetrates our soul, even as the oil sinks in and penetrates our skin. We are the united to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit in turn unites us to Christ. 

The Sacrament of Confirmation is a participation in the grace of Pentecost. Once the Apostles are anointed with the Holy Spirit, they begin their public ministry, which is simply a continuation of Jesus’ own public ministry. The Holy Spirit is the Breath of God which enables the Apostles to proclaim the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Without this Breath, they would not be able to proclaim this Word boldly and publicly. This is what the Sacrament of Confirmation does for us to; it enables us to proclaim Jesus to the world, and to do so with confidence and courage. 

If we are baptized, the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit, dwells in us, as long as we do not drive Him away from us. If we are confirmed, this Breath is strengthened in us. It’s like the difference between someone who can breath normally, but who doesn’t exercise very much, and someone who is a runner and has greater cardiovascular endurance. But just because we have the Breath of God in us through baptism, and even if that Breath is strengthened in us through confirmation, it doesn’t mean that we will use that Breath to proclaim the Word. A thousand opportunities present themselves to proclaim Jesus Christ, but we don’t always take advantage of them. The Breath of God remains in us, but He often remains unused. 

What are those opportunities that we have to proclaim Jesus to others in our daily lives? Do we take advantage of those opportunities, or do we let them slip away? If we are going out to eat as a family, do we pray out loud at the restaurant? Or do we look around first, make sure no one is watching, and then make the smallest and most discrete Sign of the Cross as possible? Or do we just not pray in public at all? When we are on vacation, do we make sure to make it to Mass on Sunday, even if we are vacationing with non-Catholics or Catholics who do not practice their faith? When the Christian faith is disparaged at school or in the workplace, do we stand up for our beliefs? If we know there are other Christians at school or at work, do we try to build community with them in order to strengthen each other in our common faith? 

Many people in our world today are hostile to faith. But many people, perhaps more than we think, are hungering for faith. Many people are more open than we might realize. Just the other day, I had a conversation about exorcisms with a high school student who was taking orders in the Chick-fil-A drive thru. No joke. He looked at my Roman collar, asked if I was a priest, and then said, “While I have you here, let me ask you a question: Are exorcisms real?” I told him I had the number of the diocesan exorcist on my cell phone, which was definitely an unnecessary flex. But the point is that we never know when these kinds of opportunities will prevent themselves and we have to be ready to take advantage of them when they come, even if they come in the Chick-fil-A drive thru. 

The good news is that we have plenty of air to breathe. We are not in the vacuum of space, and asthma attacks are a rare occurrence for most of us. The even better news is that we have the Breath of God. But just like normal breath, we can take the fact that we have the Breath of God for granted. Unlike normal breath, however, which carries whatever words we choose to say, whether bad or good, the Breath of God will carry only one Word, Jesus Christ. And unless we choose to proclaim that Word, the Breath of God will remain unused in our spiritual lungs. Let us not allow the Breath of God to become stale for lack of use. As on the day of Pentecost, let us of have the confidence and courage to proclaim the Word of God to others. Amen.