On Breathing and the Incarnation
Last Saturday the Hartford Catholic Worker hosted our annual Christmas party for the kids we live and work with in north Hartford. Our rented school bus led a caravan that brought about 75 kids down to the rural community of Voluntown where we run our summer camp every year in the middle of the Pachaug forest. Last Saturday was a gorgeously sunny and unseasonably mild day and so much of the partying happened outside. While some of the older kids played touch football and some of the younger ones laid in leaves and rolled down a hill over and over again two of our intrepid volunteers took ten of the kids for a walk on the trails in the forest. Most of us gathered here probably take a walk in the forest for granted, maybe we walk our dogs at the reservoir or perhaps we live in a rural community, and so to appreciate the awe experienced by these kids when they stepped from the field into the forest imagine yourself stepping into the canopy of the Brazilian rain forest or off a dune into the Sahara sand.
The forest is a magical and mysterious place for kids who grow up in the inner city and rarely have the chance to leave their block. When they look up they see a legion of trunks blocking the sun and swaying in the breeze rather than billboards hawking booze; closing their eyes they hear the whoosh of a gust making its way through the pine and hemlock boughs, rather than the incessant white noise of traffic. The path is soft underfoot, carpeted by a century of spruce needles never crushed by asphalt. The scent of the air is sweet, not saccharine,… subtle- but real enough that if you’ve never smelled it before you can almost taste it. To walk in the woods is to traipse in the lungs of Eden.
The trails at our camp wind through 50 acres, there are a couple of bridges crossing a brook that snakes through the land and a local artist has adorned one tree by a bridge with a sculpture made of branches and twigs, it has moss for hair and eyes from a doll. People who see it for the first time find it either enchanting or creepy. Every kid finds it creepy.
When lunch time came we all gathered in the field holding hands in a circle. At the Catholic Worker this is a daily ritual when we gather as a community that purposefully transcends race and religion, class and gender, geography and generation. At circle time everyone says their name and they share with the community one thing they are thankful for. It was at the start of circle when we realized we were missing a few folks; the hikers had not yet returned. We figured they lost track of time so we continued with circle and set aside a couple of the pizzas for them. It turns out they were lost but not lost in time. In fact, when they realized it was lunch time and that they would miss our circle they stopped walking and formed their own circle in the woods. After giving thanks they walked in search of a cell signal with which they called us for help.
I’m having trouble articulating why exactly this scene speaks to me but I think it has something to do with the Advent themes of hoping, and waiting and searching for a savior; themes which aren’t really confined to the season of Advent if you think about it.
Here’s a ten dollar theological expression for you: the delay of the parousia. The parousia is just a fancy word theologians use when they want to sound smart at a cocktail party or when they publish a book that no one will read. In Christian theology it simply means the second coming of Christ. In the decades just after Jesus’ torture and execution there was an apocalyptic fervor that he would soon return in, well, in an apocalyptic fashion. The delay of the parousia is the expression used to mull over why that hasn’t yet happened. Has God forgotten us? Have we been abandoned?
To paraphrase the angel Gabriel from today’s gospel: “Greetings, favored ones! The Lord is with you.” Given that Gabriel was announcing Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus he could have also said “greetings Favored one, The Lord is within you.” And it is just as accurate for me to say to all of you “greetings favored ones, the Lord is within you as well”, for there has been no delay to the parousia. Far from it.
Indeed, Jesus returns to us with every birth. The audacity of hope written about by the president cannot compare with the audacity of God hoping in us, trusting us about 400,000 times a day as new mothers give birth to what St Paul tells us are nothing less than temples of the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation may have been a singular event two millennia ago but it was not a finite one. The Incarnation is a never ending miracle of divine generosity and holy trust whereby our God is constantly breaking into our world not with cataclysm on a chariot of fire, but with the breaking of water and a mother’s push. The Lord lives not in a tent, a tabernacle or a house of cedar but in our delicate bodies of flesh and bone.
We read this in the second chapter of Genesis: “the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Whereas the first breath of humanity was God whispering “I am here”; the first breath, the first cry of every newborn child is God’s echo “I am still with you, I am always with you.”
Close your eyes (really) and taking a slow deep breath. When we take a breath we re-spire; spire from the Latin spiritus. When we respire our lungs pull in the Holy Spirit where She joins with our blood to animate our bodies and sanctify our lives. Except for when we are meditating, we breathe reflexively. That is, without conscious thought we are constantly inspired by God. Even Job amidst his tribulations and suffering remained inspired by God declaring: “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
Obviously, we cannot live without breathing. Perhaps less obviously we cannot live without God in us. When the Spirit within us leaves for the final time we expire.
I can’t in good conscience stand before you this morning reflecting on the holy breath of God, the Ruah, without calling to attention the torture report that was released last week and the current unrest related to the recent police killings of Black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The tragic refrain of Eric Garner as he was being choked was “I can’t breathe”. Eleven times he gasped “I can’t breathe”.
And what of the gagging screams of the men, some of whom were known to be innocent, who were water boarded in our names? Like Eric Garner they too begged for breath? “Mish kader aatt nafass”. “I can’t breathe”
“Mish kader aatt nnafass”. “I can’t breathe”
“Mish kader aatt nnafass”. “I can’t breathe”
In Isaiah we read that God gave breath to the people so that we could be a “light unto the nations” and “to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon.” We have done just the opposite.
These men were manifestations of the Incarnation as much as you and I are. By entering the world through them God had placed Her trust in us. Who are we to snuff out God’s presence in them?
In their pleas for breath they were pleading for God to not abandon them. And God did not abandon them… No, but in those moments it was we who abandoned God. It is a testament to God’s infinite mercy and patience with us that though we often forsake Him through hate, violence and neglect, God has not forsaken us. In the book of Job Elihu sings: “God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice… If he should take back his spirit… and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish… and humanity would return to dust.” And yet we are not dust. God still breathes through us.
Torture and killing diminish the presence of the Lord in our midst. As Christians we need to be like Mary and proclaim with our lives that our souls magnify the Lord.
Our volunteers and kids lost in the woods knew they were not forsaken and so they made a circle to give thanks and thereby magnify the Lord in their presence.
In the gospel of John we read how the Resurrected Christ entered a closed room where the disciples were cowering in fear. He greeted them “Peace be with you’… and when he …said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” With the Holy Spirit upon us we no longer need to be afraid, we no longer need to wait to be rescued, we no longer need to wonder when he is coming back.
With the Holy Spirit upon us we must no longer torture, we must no longer kill, because to do these things is to abuse the baby Jesus who is constantly sent to live among us; a baby who saves us by requiring our constant care.
In a moment gifts of bread and wine will be brought to the altar and either Bob or Curtis will pray: “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become the bread of life.” He will then take the cup and again pray: “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will be our spiritual drink.” After these prayers we will respond “Blessed Be God Forever” in recognition that these gifts of Bread and Wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Well, it seems to me that each of us- those gathered here this morning- as well as those forgotten in our nursing homes, condemned in our prisons, hidden in our ghettoes, and despised on our battlefields, - all of us- are gifts to be presented at the altar of life and so I ask you all to join hands in thanks as I offer this third prayer of consecration after which I invite you to respond “Blessed be God forever”:
Blessed are you Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness we have our lives to offer, fruit of our mother’s womb and the work of our elders’ care. We carry your breath meant to comfort, and we are your hands consecrated to heal.
“Blessed be God forever.”
Chris Doucot preached this sermon on the 4th Sunday of Advent at St. James's Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. Chris and his wife Jackie facilitate the tremendous ministry of the Hartford Catholic Worker. Chris also is a professor at the University of Hartford.