The Breath of the Spirit

In my last post, I looked at three New Testament scenes that revealed the nature and action of the Holy Trinity. That got me wondering: how do we see the Father and the Spirit acting in the Old Testament? I say Father and Spirit because Jesus had not been revealed yet. 

There are three scenes I want to consider.

The Dawn of Creation

First, the opening line of Scripture, describing God’s creation of the natural world.

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth – the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the face of Ocean and Ruah hovering over face of the waters. God said, Let there be light! And there was light.” (Gen 1:1-2) 

We see here the very act of God’s creation. The earth is still formless, shrouded in darkness. God’s Ruah is there. Ruah is the Hebrew word we translate as both wind and spirit. Thus we may say, God’s Spirit was there, hovering over the face of shapeless earth and sea. Hovering in its creative power, just as the Spirit hovered over Jesus at His Baptism. In the presence of that Spirit, God utters his creative Word over creation, just as he spoke at Jesus’ Baptism and Transfiguration. He utters a divine Word that causes to be that which it signifies.

Let me rephrase for the sake of clarity: God the Father, in the act of creation, utters a Word in the presence of His Spirit. That Word brings into being what the Word signifies: light. The Spirit hovers over earth and sea. God utters a Word through the Spirit that says Let there be light. At once, created light arises upon the earth, separating day from night. Thus, the Father and the Spirit bring things into being. That is their nature.

The First Breath of Life

Second scene: the creation of Adam, in the second chapter of Genesis. Here, too, we see the action of Father and Spirit, creating life. We read:

“The Lord God formed Adam of dust from the soil, he breathed into his face the breath of life and he became a living being.” (Gen 2:7)

This is the creation of Adam. The first human. Formed of the dust of the earth. A natural creature who, upon receiving the breath of God, the Spirit of God, becomes a being of matter and spirit. 

To restate this verse: God breathes, exhales, takes that which is from His interior and directs it toward the interior of Adam. He breathes upon Adam’s face, into his nostrils, into his lungs. In the lungs, God’s breath and Spirit enter Adam’s bloodstream, and, from there, spirited-life is communicated to Adam’s inner self, a spirited-life which has sprung from the very inner life of God. 

We may say that the word for breath denotes God’s Spirit for two reasons. First, the Greek word ‘pnoe’ is a close cousin of ‘pneuma’ (spirit); ‘pnoe’ carries the meanings “wind, breath, spirit,” just like Ruah does in Hebrew. (I don’t have a copy of the Scriptures in Hebrew so I’m not sure if the original Hebrew here is Ruah or another word. But the Greek is ‘pnoe,’ which can denote the meaning of spirit.) God breathed into his face the ‘pnoe’ of life

There is a second reason which further clarifies my point that this breath is the Spirit. In the 20th Chapter of John’s Gospel, John clearly refers to this Genesis 2:7 verse. In so doing, he underscores the link between breath of God and Holy Spirit. Consider this scene, when Jesus enters the Upper Room after His Resurrection:

Jesus Breathes the Spirit

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 21-22).

Note that breath and Spirit are here equated. It’s rather odd this phrase: Jesus breathed on them. However, the strangeness falls away when we realize that what John sees in this scene is no less than a new creation, echoing what happened with Adam in Genesis. 

The word for Jesus ‘breathed’ on them here is ἐμφυσάω, emphusao. It’s the same word that is used in Genesis 2:7. There, the Father breathed on Adam and made him a living being. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes on his young church and imparts to them life in the Spirit, life in the Kingdom. 

This breath of Jesus transmits to the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit. He breathes on them and lets them know this breath is the Holy Spirit (“Receive the Holy Spirit”). They are now a new creation. A new mode of life has been transmitted. This is the new birth that Jesus described to Nicodemus: Unless you are born of water and Spirit you cannot enter the Kingdom of God. (See Jn 3:5).

This is a good place to recall what we saw in the Trinity Unveiled post last week. At the Annunciation, the Father engenders Jesus in the womb of Mary under the action of the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit hovers over him while the Father’s Word declares him to be his beloved Son. Moments later, the Spirit drives Jesus into the desert to signal the start of his active life. Towards the high point of His Ministry, at the Transfiguration, the Spirit hovers over Jesus as the Father speaks a Word that reveals who Jesus is, shining in his glory on Mt. Thabor. 

To his astonished disciples, Jesus makes the marvelous claim that this same dynamic described above will be true for them. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” (Jn. 20:22). As the Father gives me life through his Spirit, so will He do for you.

What we saw the Father do for Jesus, then – hover over Him, transmit life to Him through his creative Spirit – the Father also wishes to impart to us. To breathe his creative, engendering, life giving Spirit over us. 

The first step toward this life is to believe that it shall be so. Amen, let it be.

A Prayer

Abba, as you breathed over creation, breathe over me; as you breathed over Adam the breath of life, breathe over me your Spirit of life. Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, you breathed upon your disciples the Spirit of life, have mercy on me, a sinner. O Holy Spirit, you took Peter, James and John beneath your shadow. Take me beneath your life-giving cloud where I can gaze upon Jesus in the glorious light that comes from the Father. 

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