"I can't breathe:" Needing Spirit at Pentecost

Wind of the SpiritWhen the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (2.1-4)

When we mark the feast of Pentecost (May 31), we are not simply remembering the gift of the Spirit and, as we say, the birthday of the Church 2000 years ago. Also very importantly, at this very moment, we are called to remember the need for breath, spirit, Spirit. If we cannot breathe, as a community and as every individual, we will be stifled, suffocated — and soon not alive at all. The gift of the Spirit is the promise and guarantee in every generation that we are called to be fully alive, as human beings and as Christians, because God infuses into us God’s own breath. (It’s always been this way; think of Genesis 1: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Godswept over the face of the waters.) This spirit/Spirit of God is both physical and spiritual – “a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” even “divided tongues, as of fire.”

It is always the case that we need to come back to life and breathe again, but the reality is all the more poignant and tragic this year. Covid 19 is not over with. 100,000+ of Americans have died, while people in nearly every country on earth are suffering the virus invading their lungs, the shortness of breath, and the need for respirators, and in the end, an entire loss of breath,  the dying that comes when there is no more spirit.

on the respiratorSuch is a pandemic — an act of nature, what people used to call “an act of God” — but we also suffered this week a specific and horrific instance of one man stealing another’s breath: the outrageous death of George Floyd due to the action of one Minneapolis policeman, who kept his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than five minutes, even as the victim gasped, “I can’t breath, I can’t breath.” Three other policemen watched, and did not intervene, despite the pleas of bystanders.

Who was George Floyd? Here is a simple account in the Chicago Tribune:

"Before he died after being pinned for minutes beneath a Minneapolis police officer's knee, George Floyd was suffering the same fate as millions of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic: out of work and looking for a new job. Floyd moved to Minneapolis from his native Houston several years ago in hopes of finding work and starting a new life, said Christopher Harris, Floyd's lifelong friend. But he lost his job as a bouncer at a restaurant when Minnesota's governor issued a stay-at-home order.

"On Monday night, an employee at a Minneapolis grocery store called police after Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. In widely circulated cellphone video of the subsequent arrest, Floyd, who was black, can be seen on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back while Officer Derek Chauvin presses him to the pavement with his knee on Floyd’s neck. The video shows Chauvin, who is white, holding Floyd down for minutes as Floyd complains he can’t breathe. The video ends with paramedics lifting a limp Floyd onto a stretcher and placing him in an ambulance."

George FloydGeorge Floyd could then, you might say, be any of us, seeking work, trying to survive when he had no money. And, more to the point, he was African American too, and suffered in a way that people like me (white, Harvard, 02138) rarely suffer. What happened is incomprehensible. If Mr. Floyd was already arrested, already on the ground, and already handcuffed — for maybe trying to pass a counterfeit $20! - what could Officer Chauvin possibly have imagined he was doing for that interminable and cruel time?

Terrifying scenes then to meditate on, on this Pentecost Sunday, death in nature, death by human choice: 100,000 Americans have died due to Covid 19, largely because they cannot breathe, and many, many more globally are losing their breath even as I write, as you read. “I can’t breathe,” cries Mr. Floyd, and his breath stolen from him.

Back to Pentecost: Let us remember the latter part of the reading, for the gift of the Spirit is the ability to speak loudly, boldly, with utter clarity and deep passion and compassion. Everyone heard those men and women who burst out of the upper room, unprepared, no script in hand, but speaking truth and hope in words every listener could understand.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” (2.5-13)

Powerful words: there is much to be said about the pandemic and our response to it, and much is being said right now about Mr Floyd’s tragic and entirely unnecessary death. I am not expert in the details of either the global or the local tragedy, but it seems to me that Acts is highlighting a particular kind of speaking: in the Spirit. The women and men in the upper room in an instant went from meditative and prayerful silence in a closed room to abruptly eloquent speech in the open air that touched the hearts of women and men from many different countries speaking many different languages. During all those days of waiting after the Ascension, they opened themselves, emptied themselves, breathing in and breathing out —and then one morning let the Spirit give them words to speak.

Think too of Mark 13:

When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. (13.11)

Wait for the Spirit: in a sense, we are off the hook. I am not the one to come up with a policy for reopening city and church in a safe way; I am not the one to come up with a plan for health care for every person who needs it, or short and long-term financial support for every person and family whose income has dried up; and I and not the one to be a leader in condemning violence in our country, particularly violence even by the police against African Americans. I need to stop and listen, to my sisters and brothers, and to my God. The Spirit may or may not give me wise or prophetic words to speak, and in the mean time I need not flatter my ego by opining on matters out of my depth.

Spirit as FireBut we do need to watch, listen, wait. Though much more needs to be said and to be done,  I may not know my own role, until the tongue of fire touches my head. The same with you. For now we can at least be like the women and men in the upper room on Pentecost morning, that mixed gathering of apostles, relatives of Jesus, Mary his mother, and the women who followed him because they loved him: we need to be open, quiet, waiting, ready for the Spirit, who may – now, soon, later, perhaps – give you or me just the right words to speak, in a way that actually changes things. Let us, in a certain sense, hold our breath, waiting to speak or hear the right words in the face of the greater and smaller evils of this day.

And there's more: Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post and editor of the Globe when the 2002 clerical sex abuse crisis exploded here in the Archdiocese, was the speaker at Harvard’s virtual graduation ceremony on Thursday. He refers to the abuse scandal (first uncovered in the Phoenix, then pursued and spotlighted in the Globe) as a compelling case where freedom of the press has served humanity very well. On a day when we celebrate spirit-driven speech coming upon all nations, it is appropriate to reflect on free human speech, a free press, the need for brave journalists to tell the truth. You can find his speech here.

(Part of a series of Lenten, Easter, Pentecost homilies written for each Sunday during the time when my parish is shut down.)