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Sunday 23 May 2021: Day of Pentecost

Breath of Heaven

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

By Irim Sarwar

Churchwarden, St Michael & All Angels, Summertown, Oxford

Context: an Anglican congregation of about 80, mainly established/retired professionals (50+) with some young families, at the main Parish Eucharist.

Aim: to help us engage with the Holy Spirit

As I look to Pentecost, yearning for its illumination in this dark time, Amy Grant’s voice drifts through the room: ‘Breath of heaven/hold me together/be forever near me…’

Welcome, Holy Spirit. Shall we begin?

And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ (Genesis 1:2)

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father into all creation.


I was once in a group where we were asked who prayed to each member of the Trinity. Numbers for the Father and the Son were close, though Jesus may have pipped the Father to the post. The Holy Spirit was a distant third, with only a hand or two raised.

It’s not difficult to see why: we imagine the Father and Son as people, so praying to them is conversation; it’s comfortable. But how do you pray to the breath of God, intangible, amorphous? It’s hard, unsettling even. It becomes easier to limit the Holy Spirit to the breath which sustains creation, which descends once on the apostles at Pentecost or on us at Confirmation, to celebrate it once a year, keeping our distance … God’s Spirit is closer than our own skin.


We may know God infused all creation with the Holy Spirit, animating everything from microorganisms to nebulae, but that can feel like an impersonal principle rather than a divine person to whom we can draw near.

However, Ezekiel tells us that the Holy Spirit holds us together in a deeply intimate, essential way. When the hand of the Lord set him down in the valley, Ezekiel connected the dry bones at His direction, but they did not live until God breathed over them, as He had the void. In this passage, God emphasises that His breath is essential for life three times (37:5, 6, 14)

As St Paul says to us, perhaps impatiently, in 1 Corinthians 3:16, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ Only when God breathes through us can we hear the voice of the Lord.


The Holy Spirit not only sustains us within but connects us without. The reading from Acts shows us the Holy Spirit filling the apostles, pushing them out of grieving for their Lord into connecting with the world, speaking so all could understand – empowering them to begin their mission.

When Christ is with us, He is the focus. For us to come into right relationship with each other as the Trinity is, He must leave and send the Spirit to breathe through us.

The Father is the architect of the kingdom, the Son is the Word who shows us how to live it, and the Holy Spirit is the breath that makes it possible for us to do so.


It is no accident, I think, that a world disconnected from the Holy Spirit is one in which we are finding it harder to breathe: COVID-19, destroying the lungs of our planet, squeezing the life out of so many like George Floyd and Eric Garner, even as they tell us, ‘I can’t breathe.’ But how do we reconnect to the breath of God?

The alternative reading to Acts, Romans 8:22-27, offers us a way forward: ‘for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.’ So, we ask the Holy Spirit to pray for us to the Father, then return to breathe into us, inspiring us to speak to each person so they can hear the truth, guiding us to love, to forgive, always bringing us back into right relationship with God, ourselves, and the world, mirroring the relationship of the Trinity.

For it is only when the Holy Spirit breathes through us, pouring into us the power of His gifts, that we may fulfil the vocation we all share, which, as Caryll Houselander and Meister Eckhart both tell us, is to bring Christ into our world … and help it to breathe again.

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