Open our Bibles at the opening verses of Genesis, and there we find the spirit of God hovering over the very beginning of creation. Some versions of Scripture refer to this spirit as a roaring wind, others as “the power of God”. In Monsignor Ronald Knox’s 1950 translation of the Old Testament this spirit is described in evocative terms of “the breath of God” stirring over the waters of the deep.
This image of the “breath of God” recurs in Scripture. A little further on in Genesis we are told: “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” And in the Gospels we encounter this creative power of the breath of God in action once again, when Our Risen Lord breathes on His Apostles and says to them: “Peace be to you.... Receive my spirit.” (Jn 20:19-22)
He breathes His Spirit on them and into them to restore them and to build them up. The Apostles had abandoned Him in His hour of greatest need, but now He brings them the peace which comes with knowing that our sins are forgiven and we are loved by God. Easter morning was brimming over with the freshness and the power of that same breath of God which hovered over the waters of the deep at the beginning of creation – a restorative, life-giving breath that brings life and courage to the soul. It is very much present and active in the world today, despite all attempts to suffocate it.
When Our Lord breathed His spirit into the Apostles, He instructed them that He was ordaining them with a very specific mission: “Whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted. And whosoever sins you retain, they are retained.” (Jn 20:23) In this moment, we witness the institution of the Sacrament of Penance. Our Lord breathes His spirit into the Apostles so that they, the same sinners who abandoned Him during His Passion, might not only be made whole themselves, but that they might breathe the healing balm of forgiveness into the hearts of all sinners who repent and confess.
That spirit of healing is breathed into all priests, in every generation, when they are ordained in the Sacrament of Holy Order. To sinners is given the power to forgive sins, to lift the anxiety and sense of isolation that accompanies guilt and to build up the Church. Serving in a church in the centre of a great city means that the Oratory fathers have the privilege of giving absolution to many people who might not have used the Sacrament of Penance for many years or decades. In the confessional we experience the wondrous power of God’s grace in action at close quarters, on a daily basis. Every time a penitent opens his or her heart in the Sacrament of Penance and asks for God’s forgiveness, all of the freshness of that first Easter morning is breathed into a soul, bringing health and wholeness.
Of course, we priests go to confession ourselves, and so we realise how difficult it can be to articulate our own sins in all honesty, humility and frankness. But it is worth it, each time, to receive not only forgiveness, but to be refreshed and strengthened by the touch of the breath of God. The same breath of God is active in all of its creativeness and power in the other Sacraments. During the Holy Mass, when the priest utters the words of consecration, the stillness of the Church is filled with God’s Presence as Christ comes to the altar in His Living Body and Blood to feed us.
In our Baptism we were each clothed with a white garment. In ancient times this robe was worn for a whole week before being taken off on the Saturday following Easter, after which the new Christians were sent out into the world in civilian dress to spread the Gospel. As the Baptismal robe of cloth was laid aside, they were admonished to treasure and guard the white robe of Sanctifying Grace with which their souls had been invested. If this white robe of grace which we receive in Baptism is cast off through mortal sin, then it is extremely urgent that it should be restored to us in the Sacrament of Penance. Without this, we cannot receive Holy Communion and we face everlasting separation from God in hell. If our sins are venial, the robe of grace remains intact, but loses its lustre. This is why all of us can benefit from immersion in the fuller’s soap that is offered in the Sacrament of Confession.
If it is perhaps a while since we went to confession, we should resolve to do so soon, and allow the breath of God to restore us to that dazzling condition to which we were elevated in Baptism.
Fr Julian Large