The Breath of God in the Face of COVID-19

[A reflection on the Valley of Dry Bones and the Raising of Lazarus for Lent 5.]

“Mrs Orton, do kids begin breathing as soon as they are born,
or do they start a few years later?”

That was the curious question
that I asked of
our next door neighbour.

And, interestingly enough,
this is my earliest memory.

Or at least it is the first memory
that I am totally sure of;
one that was confirmed
over the years by my mother.

I was in the apartment next door
and I asked Mrs Orton this question
about breathing.

“Oh Brian,” she answered,
“babies start breathing
as soon as they are born.”

“Well,” I replied, “I think that I just started.”

I was four years old,
and somehow in that moment
I had become conscious of the fact
that I was breathing,
and figured that I had just begun
a new stage of life.

This isn’t only my earliest memory,
it was perhaps my first inkling of God.

To my four-year-old consciousness
there was something so powerful,
mysterious and wonderful about breathing.

By breathing I knew that I was alive.
I became conscious of myself as a living being.

Draw breath in, let it back out.
Repeat.

This whole business of breathing
was exhilarating, enlivening,
and filled me with joy and wonder.

And somehow I had a sense
that this breath was bigger than just air,
that being alive was something deeply mysterious,
that there was something magical about life,
that to be alive was somehow to live in God.

Now, remember this is sixty-six-year-old Brian
trying to reconstruct what four-year-old Brian
was experiencing in that moment.

The words I’m using are bigger than anything
that the little guy could have imagined.
But I know that my four-year-old self
had a sense of mystery, a sense of God,
in that moment in Mrs. Orton’s kitchen.

And it all had to do with breath.

Not surprising, really.

After all, isn’t it the very Spirit, or breath of God
that hovers over the face of the deep
in the beginning? (Gen. 1.1-2)

And isn’t it the very breath of God
that animates that mud sculpture
into a living being?

Then the Lord God formed Adam
from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils
the breath of life;
and Adam became a living being.
(Gen. 2.7)

Our lives, and indeed the very life of all creation,
are animated, sustained and renewed
by nothing less than the breath of God.
(see Ps. 104.29-30)

And so here we are,
in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic
that is, both literally and figuratively,
breath-taking.

It is breath-taking figuratively
in that it is unparalleled.

Who has seen anything like this before
in our life time?
How can we even begin to comprehend this threat?

But it is also breath-taking
because COVID-19
quite literally takes your breath away.

This is a respiratory disease
that in extreme cases
strips us of our breath.

So it is perhaps a tragic providence
that our readings for this 5th Sunday of Lent
are about the loss of breath.

Lazarus was dying.
His breathing was increasingly laboured.
His breaths became more and more shallow.

Jesus was summoned,
but delayed in coming.

Time was of the essence,
but Jesus delayed in coming.

And then Lazarus died.
He breathed his last.
The breath of life departed from him.

There was no breath.

What happened in the little household of
Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus,
is depicted on a much larger scale
in the Valley of Dry bones.

But in this valley the bones
represent all the households of Israel.

This is a loss of breath
on the scale of a pandemic.

This is a crisis not of one family,
but of all families.

In this valley of bones there is no breath.
In this image of dried and bleached bones
there is a deathly stillness.

Neither movement nor breath.
The creative, sustaining and animating
breath of God has departed.

So it is no surprise that if there is to be renewed life,
then there will need to be a renewed breath.
And the story loves to dwell on this breath
with repeated references:

I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. (Ezek. 37.5)

(I will) put breath in you, and you shall live. (Ezek 37.6)

Prophesy to the breath, prophesy you mortal, and say to the breath:

‘Thus says the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath,
and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ (Ezek. 37.9)

I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them,
and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
(Ezek. 37.10)

Into the midst of anxiety and despair,
in the face of a crisis of breath-taking proportions;
indeed, in the face of breathlessness and death,
the Lord commands his prophet to speak words
of impossible hope, life and resurrection.

But notice that the breath of God
is the very breath of creation.

“Come from the four winds, O breath.”
This is a breath that blows from the four directions.

Here is something
that our First Nations siblings
know so much more powerfully and intimately
than their European conquerors.

The Great Spirit,
the Spirit that is the breath of creation,

is the Spirit of the four directions,
the four winds.

And so we see that while a virus seeks
to take our breath away,
creation conspires to renewed breath in every direction.

The radical hope of resurrection
permeates all of creation.

The radical hope of the breath of God
renewing the face of the earth
goes all the way down.

My friends,
the church is called to proclaim,
and we are called to live,
out of that same radical hope
in the face of the present crisis.

While COVID-19 will strip a vast multitude of their breath,
we must claim, for ourselves and for our world,
the hope of the breath of life that ultimately
wins out over the forces of death.

We dare stand in the face of this pandemic
with Jesus as he stands at the grave of Lazarus,
and proclaim …

I am the resurrection and the life!

But if we are to stand with Jesus in the face of death,
we need to remember that before that new life,
Jesus wept.

He wept for the death of his friend.
He wept for the grief of Lazarus’ sisters.
He wept.

If we are to stand with Jesus in the face of death,
if we dare with Jesus to proclaim resurrection,
then, like Jesus, we will do so with tears in our eyes.

Amen.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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