Daily Archives: February 29, 2020

Lent with Herbert Day 3: ‘God’s breath in Man’

Continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, the third phrase in Herbert’s Prayer is ‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’.

This line invites us into a very early tradition of prayer and meditation rooted in a reflection on the image of breath and breathing in the Bible. To understand this line we need first to remember that Hebrew, Greek and Latin all use a single word to mean both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. ‘God’s breath in man’ evokes that primal image in Genesis of God breathing the breath of life into humanity, the moment of our wakening as living beings, a moment of tender closeness to our Maker. But after that inspiration comes the equally decisive moment of expiration. We have to trace our history through fall and alienation pain and sin and death at last to the foot of the cross where a Second Adam, one in whom also the whole of humanity is bound and involved, stretches out his arms to embrace the pain of the world and breathes back to God that gift of life:

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last (Luke 23:46)Then we must look beyond the cross, to the resurrection and the new breath of life that comes with the sending of the Holy Spirit. John’s account consciously parallels the first gift of the breath of life in Genesis:

And when he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’(John 20:22)

Contained in the pattern of our breathing is the whole story of our salvation. For a Christian in prayer, the very act of breathing can become a return to our birth, a receiving of original life from the breath of God, as we breath in with Adam in the garden of our beginnings, an offering of all that needs letting go and redeeming, as we breath out with Christ on the cross; a glad acceptance of new life in the Holy spirit as we breath in again receiving our life and commission afresh from the risen Lord

Here is the poem I wrote in response to the phrase, incorporating some of these thoughts. as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the Play button

God’s breath in man returning to his birth

 

Breathe in and in that breathing be created,

Wake from the dust, be conscious, and inhale,

Fresh from the Word and Light of God, delighted,

You find you have become a living soul.

But soon you must breathe out. What’s to be done?

Who will be with you then? And will you dare

To trust the breath of life back to the one

Who breathed it into you? Christ comes to share

Your letting go; you hear him sigh and say

Father into your hands receive my spirit

And find that he has opened up the way

For you as well. He takes your breath to bear it

Deep into heaven with him in his death,

That you might be reborn with every breath.

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