Who Breathed on You?
(Matthew 28:1-10 & John 20:1-18)
Around about Palm Sunday, I read a little clip about hymns to sing and not to sing at this present time. I can’t find it today but a couple of them stood out –we shouldn’t sing “He Walks With Me” and “Breathe on Me” – and we should sing “He Walked this Lonesome Valley”. Very cute little note and made me think about a time to laugh and a time to cry. Nothing wrong with that but one hymn title jumped out at me – “Breathe on Me”.
I know right now we don’t want people to breathe on us. We don’t know what they have nor what we may possibly have so it’s better not to get too close or breathe on anyone. But the hymn I question is fully titled “Breathe on Me, Breath of God”. This year our Easter Sunday is during the COVID-19 pandemic. A time when we’re secluded in our homes and told to wrap or hide our faces if we dare to go out for groceries or supplies. Walk into the grocery store, and we see people wandering quietly through the aisles with gloved hands and masked faces. Get too close, and we get a wide-eyed look of alarm on the face of that passerby even though we think we may know them. We are in hiding from an invisible beast. “The Beast” is what some people are naming the virus. It attacks, sometimes ferociously in the night with spiked fevers, aches, and being unable to breathe deeply. COVID-19 is a “breath-taking” virus. It steals the breath from people’s bodies in a particularly terrifying way. It strikes suddenly leaving us frightened and breathless. With no cure in sight, the only thing we can do is hide away, covering our noses and faces with cloth, hoping to keep the aggressive beast away from our lungs.
This brutal virus makes us feel that we are locked up in a dark tomb for an impossibly long time, as though the darkness of “Good Friday” might go on forever and ever with little hope in sight. But all around us, we see signs of spring, signs of awakening, signs of hope, signs of resurrection. I know life as we know it may be dampened down for now. And yet, spring blooms eternal. All around us – Birds sing, the sun bursts out from the winter clouds, trees bud, flowers unfurl, the ground thaws, and God unwraps an entirely new landscape of color and life. But for now, we wait.
I wonder what it must have felt like for Jesus those three days in the tomb, knowing His resurrection was coming, yet waiting for dawn to come on this magnificent morning when the stone is rolled away and the sun streams through, when an angel of the Lord removes the binding cloth from Jesus’ face, and the Holy Spirit breathes again the holy breath of life into His stricken body and makes it rise like Ezekiel’s bones from the valley of the shadow of death. Three days of darkness. Then resurrected life. Not the same life. But a newly restored and resurrected life.
In the gospel of John, there is a very detailed account of Jesus’ resurrection. First and foremost Mary Magdalene approaches the tomb while it’s still dark. She doesn’t wait until the morning, when the news of Jesus’ resurrection will spread around Jerusalem. Instead Mary comes after the third day, while it’s still dark, while all are still without hope, while the pall of death still shrouds the land and her heart. And in the darkness, just before dawn, she finds the stone rolled away, and the grave opened. From there, Mary runs to two disciples, and begs them to come and look. The first thing the disciples do is enter and find the linen cloths lying there, the cloths that had covered Jesus’ broken body. They notice the face cloth isn’t with the other linen cloths but it’s folded up in its own place. Although the two disciples still don’t really understand the idea of resurrection Jesus told them, they see and trust what their eyes perceive. All of this, from looking at the burial cloths. Imagine that first resurrection morning.
Then look at what Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and Isaiah had prophesied. From Ezekiel chapter 37 – Then He said to me – “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy Son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these who are dead, that they may live.’ So, I prophesied as He had commanded me, and the breath entered them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army.’” From Daniel chapter 12 – The Lord said, “I will put My Spirit in you, and you will live….” “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life…” From Hosea chapter 6 – “After two days he will revive us, on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” From Isaiah chapter 26 – “My soul yearns for You in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for You. But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. Go my people enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while….”
The disciples realized when the stone was rolled away, and the darkness opened to the light, the cloth from Jesus’ face had first been removed, so that the breath of God could breathe life into His body and raise him up. The gentle and loving folding of the face cloth feels both intimate and beautiful in this resurrection story, as though God gazed down on His tortured Son, removed and folded the cloth from Jesus’ nostrils and mouth, and declared death defeated. Let me say it again – God declared death defeated. The breath of the Holy Spirit must have come powerfully into Him, must have filled the cave with heavenly light, must have lifted Him up and stood Him on His feet, must have refreshed and restored His body, as the breath of God flowed through His body, creating life once again from the pall of death, a new Human Being. At that, the rest of the cloths must have fallen from His limbs and torso to the cave floor, as Jesus exited the tomb.
After the two disciples had left the tomb, Mary remained. When she looked into the tomb, she saw two “angels of God” where Jesus had been, like an afterglow of God’s breath. When she turned around, there she saw Jesus, His body fresh with life. And yet, not as before. In that moment she knew that everything would change. All her hopes, affirmed. All her fears, relieved. (And this scripture is why I believe we will see our loved ones in Heaven but not in the same body.)
Today, as we celebrate Easter morning, resurrection means so much more to us than it did before because we’ve been living in a type of darkness, confined to a kind of tomblike existence. We’ve “Walked This Lonesome Valley” – alone, but not fully alone. Life as we’ve known it has stopped. We don’t go out to work. We don’t go out to play. We hide our faces – we guard our lungs – we walk zombie-like through our streets, frightened, and covered in our own kind of cloths, so that the cold breath of death might pass us by, so the invisible breath-stealing beast might not acknowledge us. But only for a time.
Life in waiting is merely that, a time of waiting and yet a time of expectation. For we know that no matter what, the coronavirus beast has no power over us. God’s resurrection breath will raise us up. A new day will dawn, soon. Very soon.
Mary’s faith kept her expectant and waiting, watching for something new to change, something miraculous to happen. She may not have known when or exactly how, but on the third day, she came nevertheless, in the darkness, hoping that God would come through, that light would somehow break through. I’ve often thought how the realization of resurrection washed over them. Mary first thought the authorities had taken Jesus’ body and disposed of it. It took Jesus appearing before them several times to shake them into to knowing and understanding the resurrection. So it didn’t come all at once. This is where we find ourselves. Wary. Uncertain. Scared. Do I go out wrapped in garments or do I take the grave clothes off? Do I risk my presence among the people again?
I can tell you when Mary and the disciples realize what has happened –
life is restored –God’s promise is fulfilled – the Resurrection is here – they find the courage to open the doors and walk out into the light. And yet, life had changed. Never again would Jesus walk the earth as He did before. Never again would they sit on the hillsides drawing crowds of people. That time had passed. That was before. A new life and a new time had dawned, and with it, a new kind of spirit, and a new kind of people.
We too are resurrection people. Watch and wait people of God. Be expectant. Dawn is coming. And when it comes, our face cloths will be removed, and we will breathe again. We will once again go to the church building and fellowship with one another and sing praises to fill the halls. At least that’s what I pray because I want us to be together – unafraid and filled with God’s love. The spring we see around us will appear to us in all kinds of ways, and life will start again. Again we‘ll feel the bustle of people and cars, know the joy of relationships and friends. Again we’ll eat together, sing together, worship together, and love together. In a word – Resurrection, because it will all be new. Never again will life be quite the same because our experiences of death and darkness change us. We emerge not the same but renewed and restored. We become wiser and more understanding about the world and God’s amazing miracles. We become more joyful about life, and more appreciative of everything in it. We become Resurrection People.
Resurrection from this pandemic is coming. The signs are all around us. Watch. Wait. Listen for the breath and long for the change. Celebrate the Lord who gives Life and restores Life, now and forever.