This coming weekend we celebrate the 2nd Sunday of Easter in Lectionary Cycle A. The sacred writer had already introduced the giving of the Holy Spirit in John 7 in a scene during the Feast of Tabernacles in which the Spirit is promised at a future time when Jesus was glorified. In the Fourth Gospel it is at the crucifixion that Jesus is glorified in that his willing obedience manifests the nature of God, which is love. It is there on the cross that Jesus delivers the Spirit into the world (19:30), symbolized immediately afterward by the flow of the sacramental symbols of blood and water.
And now, at his first encounter with the believing community, Jesus breathes the Spirit again as a re-creation (cf. Gen 2:7) of God’s people. The word used for ‘breathe’ is emphysaō, which, though found only here in the NT, occurs several times in the LXX where it refers to God breathing life into the man formed from the dust (Gen. 2:7; cf. Wisdom 15:11), Elijah breathing into the nostrils of the widow’s dead son while calling upon the Lord to restore his life (1 Kgs. 17:21 LXX), and Ezekiel prophesying to the wind to breathe life into the slain in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:9). The allusions to the life-giving work of God in creation seems clear.
In many places in the Fourth Gospel the promise of the Spirit is foreshadowed (1:33; 4:10, 13–14; 7:37–39; 14:16–17, 26, 28; 15:26–27; 16:7–15). Could it be that v.22 is the fulfillment of these promises? There are scholars who have identified 20:22 as the Fourth Gospel’s equivalent of Pentecost, but there are problems with such a view. Thomas was not included (20:24), nor was there any great change in the disciples’ behavior—they were still meeting behind closed doors when Jesus next appeared to them (26). Others have suggested it constituted a lesser bestowal of the Spirit to be supplemented with a greater endowment at Pentecost, or that what Jesus was bestowing was not the personal Holy Spirit but some impersonal power/breath from God. There is little to support either of these views in the Fourth Gospel. Finally, there is the view that Jesus’ action was symbolic, foreshadowing the bestowal of the Spirit to take place on the Day of Pentecost. But then these problems mainly arise as people attempt to harmonize the gospels. There are many scholars who suggest that we simply leave John to narrate the gospel as the Spirit inspired him.
“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
As the noted Johannine scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown, notes in his magisterial work on the Gospel of John, how one understands and accepts these words will (a) depend on your denominational affiliation (b) sacramental view and (c) roll of the priesthood – and there is no end to the debate. What I would simply offer is always pay attention when the breath of God is at play. The breath/spirit of God hovered over the tobu w’hofu – the great formless void before Creation – and what came to be was life. Of all the many things that Jesus could have said following “Receive the Holy Spirit” there is none more profound that the core mission – forgiveness of sins – would continue in the Sacramental presence of Reconciliation. As Catholics we trust God’s Word and we celebrate the Sacrament.
Image credit: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), c. 1602 | Public Domain