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A New Age of the Spirit
By Ephraim Radner
Nov 02, 2020
The ventilator may well come to be one of the sorrowful symbols of the time of the Virus. We will associate it, as even now we do, with intense suffering, loss, and even death. The root of “ventilator” is the Latin ventus, which means “wind” or “breath.” When our breath is under threat, we are filled with enormous fear. As a child I suffered from asthma, and on more than one occasion as a young adult I needed emergency medical intervention. I still remember both the deep apprehension when my breathing was troubled, and the exhausted yet thankful relief once treated.
Breath is our life
Breath is our life. Made from dust, God grants us to be living beings through the gift of “breath” itself (Genesis 2:7). The second child born on earth, in Genesis, is Abel, a name that means simply “breath” (Hebel). The name is given as if to emphasize that the creative gift of life (implied in the name of the first child, Cain) is both grace and fragility, a “fleeting breath” as it were, offered by God yet not really capable of being held on to by us. This was something that Abel’s early death emphasized, but also something that the blessing of his legacy celebrated, as Abel became the figure of the gift of all life from God, undeservedly offered through and for the ages in Israel and the Church’s destiny, as Augustine emphasized (cf. Hebrews 11:4). In Abel—our breath received from God—we see how the future is all grace.
The most famous discussion of this gift of breath is in the book of Ecclesiastes, or, in Hebrew, “Qoheleth.” The name, applied to Solomon, describes the one who preaches to the assembly, as does the King before the gathered people in, for example, 1 Kings 8:1. Ecclesiastes famously begins, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1.2), and the word “vanity” occurs in the book almost 40 times. The book has often been read as a kind cynical reflection on the emptiness and even meaninglessness of life, an attitude hardly fit for the Bible, unless of course (as some have read it), it is meant as a kind of foil for the redemption of emptiness by Jesus. But the word that the Authorized Version translated as “vanity” is in fact the Hebrew word hebel, or “breath”; Abel. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK and the Commonwealth, has pointed out, the tone of Solomon’s teaching shifts a bit when we read it in these terms: “breath! breath! everything is a kind of fleeing breath!” It could be paraphrased, as with the poignant life of Abel, “Gift! Gift! everything is a gift of God that we cannot hold onto for ourselves!”
Furthermore, as R. Sacks observes, there is more reference to “joy” (simcha) and “rejoicing” (samach) in Ecclesiastes than in most other books of the Bible. Solomon’s “joy” here, however, is a joy that is intimately connected just to the “fleeting breath,” the hebel, that we have too easily consigned to meaninglessness.
For [God] giveth to a man that [is] good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy (2:26).
Wherefore I perceive that [there is] nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that [is] his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? (3:22).
For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth [him] in the joy of his heart (5:20).
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works (9:7).
Life—a breath that is all grace
It is precisely because our life is a “breath”—a breath that derives straight from God’s mouth and hand, a breath that is all grace—that the gifts of its small compass are in fact shot through with the deepest joy of all, the joy of God’s own self-giving in the first place. The very fact we can neither produce nor hold on to our breath is the sign of its grace; the very fact that it is given is the place of its joy. And with this apprehension comes the recognition of how good are the things of our lives “in themselves.”
One could say that the in-themselves-ness of our small and fleeting joys—our family, our food, our work, our friends, our songs—is the great pneumatic reality of our existence. For the Holy Spirit is, of course, the great Breath of all breaths, the Breather who empowers us to breathe. Breathe deeply! Breathe joyfully! Breathe as you can!
The “Age of the Spirit” has been proclaimed at various times in the Church’s history: Montanus, Francis, Wesley, Azusa Street. Perhaps this time of the Virus is also a pneumatic time, a time when we see with a divine clarity the trembling miracle of our being as God’s creatures. Perhaps we can see this even more clearly than at other times. Perhaps, that is, this too is a new age of the Spirit, one that Jesus shares with us when, coming back from his own death, he turns to us, looks us in our questioning eyes, breathes on us, and peace takes hold (John 20:21-22).