Breathe In. Breathe Out.
This is a time when many of us are feeling stretched emotionally. I know that I am. It’s hard to escape the news about COVID-19. We hear about hospitals overwhelmed in Italy and New York, we read about the tragedies taking place in seniors’ residences and long term care homes right here in Canada and it makes us afraid, to greater or lesser degrees. As we know, fear triggers a fight or flight response deep in our brains and in our bodies – but what do we do with that, we’re staying at home, there’s nowhere to flee and nothing to fight. When more bad news comes, a friend admitted to hospital or the death of someone we know, we feel the grief and sadness, but we no longer have familiar rituals to turn to, no funerals, no hospital visits, no gatherings. We have to do a lot of emotional processing on our own, and it’s stretching us. Mixed, even contradictory emotions become more frequent. My monthly pub club, a bunch of friends, met for the first time this week on Zoom. We joke around a lot, but this week the humour was darker than usual. I’m grateful for the technology that allows us to gather but at the same time I feel guilty that not everyone has the same access to technology. I’m doing my part by staying at home, but at the same time that makes me feel kind of useless. Does it make sense when I talk about all of this as being emotionally stretched?
When I ask people to describe their feelings these days, the word that keeps coming up is “surreal”. There’s a dissonance in our daily lives, a reality which feels unreal. I’m meeting with more people than ever before, but they’re just images on a screen. I sit comfortably at home bombarded by news of a world that is falling apart. It’s surreal. Strange and unusual.
I mentioned last week that this Easter has brought us closer than ever before to the lived experience of that first Easter. If the word surreal had been around two thousand years ago, I’m pretty sure that would have been the first word the disciples would have used to describe their experience of the risen Jesus. One moment he’s gone, the next he’s suddenly in the middle of a room with locked doors. No one recognizes the stranger, but then they know it’s Jesus. It’s surreal.
These same disciples are emotionally stretched. The surreal will do that to you. The gospel writers try to capture this emotional turmoil with a flurry of contradictory feelings. Mark says the women fled the empty tomb in terror and amazement. Mathew says they left with fear and great joy. Luke is the most emotive of the gospels, variously describing the first witnesses as perplexed, terrified, amazed, sad, startled and then to top it off, “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” The gospels are trying to convey in words how stretched the disciples were emotionally. Stretched to the breaking point. There’s anxiety in these narratives. Can you feel it?
To make matters worse, there’s also division in the ranks of the disciples. The men refuse to believe the women, they said they were crazy. Thomas won’t believe what anybody says – does he think they’re all lying? There’s division and mistrust. And this is only day one.
Then, still on that first day, on the evening of the first day, in the house behind locked doors, in the midst of the emotional turmoil, all the fear and anxiety and division, Jesus comes and stands among them and says,
“Peace be to you”
Luke tells us that at first they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. So Jesus reassures them, he shows them his hands and his side, and they recognize him and he says it again:
“Peace be to you”
Peace is exactly what we need when we are emotionally stretched. When we are fearful and anxious. When there are divisions among us.
“Peace be to you”
You know, I’d like to stop right there. But then Jesus does something that’s so weird that we just have to talk about this morning. He breathes on them.
Jesus came and stood among them, and he breathed on them.
That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Doesn’t that seem like a strange detail for John to record? I mean, when’s the last time you came into a room and made a point of breathing on people. Not socially acceptable really. Certainly not these days.
So I went back and checked the Greek text because sometimes that helps me make sense of weird Bible verses. This time though, it just made it stranger. Because a more accurate translation would actually be “Jesus breathed into them.” Jesus breathed into the disciples. Odd . . .
Then I heard the echoes. Maybe you’re hearing them too. Echoes of the beginning, echoes of creation, echoes of the book of Genesis:
“then the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the earth, and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and the human came alive.”
And then another echo. Echoes of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones:
“The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. There were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone on bone. I looked and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
Then the breath came into them, and they lived.”
Jesus came and stood in the room among them. They were afraid. They were anxious. They were emotionally stretched, brittle, like dry bones. He said to them “Peace be with you”. Then he breathed into them. And they came alive.
The peace that Jesus brings us, the peace that Jesus breathes into us is not just calming. More than that, it is life-giving. Peace is what we need to flourish, as individuals and as communities. It is the very presence of God with us, breathed into us as Spirit. It is, as Jesus had already told his disciples, a peace that the world cannot give. How true that seems for us these days, living in a world that gives us more anxiety than peace. The peace that God gives, the peace that God breathes into us is God’s very presence. Receive the Holy Spirit.
And come alive.
Because the point of Easter is not that Jesus was raised to new life, though he was. The point of Easter is that we are raised to new life. That’s what the gospel of John says, right at the beginning, right in the middle and right at the end. All these things have been written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life. Jesus came that you may have life and have it abundantly. To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God, who are born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of human will, but of God.
When God’s peace is breathed into us, we are brought to life.
And when we receive that breath, when breath enters our lungs, when we breathe in, what happens next?
Well you know what happens next. We breathe out.
Breathe in. Breathe in peace, come alive, receive the Spirit, receive the very presence of God.
Then breathe out. Give peace, give life, give the Spirit, be the presence of God in the world.
And keep doing it. Breathe in, and breathe out. Breathe in, and breathe out. Receive and send.
It’s something we should be mindful of. In fact recent scientific research has confirmed what people who practice yoga and meditation have known for millennia, that mindful, deliberate breathing affects mind, body and spirit in some amazing ways. It’s especially good for us when we are feeling emotionally stretched. Mindful breathing down-regulates your sympathetic nervous system, lessening fear and anxiety. It activates a para-sympathetic response in the body, calming us, reducing anxiety and dampening the body’s production of stress hormones. Some researchers have called this the “relaxation response”.
Maybe we should call it “peace”.
Isn’t it amazing that we can use something as simple as our own breathing as a sacrament to remind us of the peace that God gives us, the peace that Jesus gave his disciples with the very first words that he said to them that Easter evening, echoing the promises made a few days prior:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid. . . . I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.”
Then he shows them, and us, that there is nothing that can take that peace away from us. Not a virus, not even death. There is always new life.
“Peace be with you.”
Homily: Yr A Easter 2, April 19 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 2.14a, 22-32; Ps 16; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31
Image by Maia C