by Father Mike Stubbs
We often say words when we make a gesture. We shake someone’s hand and say, “Hello.” We kiss a family member as we tell them, “I love you.”
The priest makes the sign of the cross on the forehead, lips, and chest before reading the Gospel as he says the words, “Almighty God, cleanse my heart and my lips that I may worthily proclaim your Gospel.”
Words often accompany significant gestures in the Scriptures as well. We see
a good example of that in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 20:19-23. The risen Christ breathes upon the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
It is easy to jump ahead to the words that follow the action of breathing upon the disciples and focus upon the ministry of forgiveness that those words describe. At the same time, it is worthwhile to examine that gesture of the risen Christ apart from those words.
The breathing upon the disciples recalls the creation of the first human being: “The Lord God formed man out the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Gn 2:7). The risen Christ then is establishing a new creation by this encounter with the disciples. He is giving them life.
By implication, the risen Christ considers them dead and in need of life. Think of the irony. The disciples had undergone a tremendous ordeal in which they had survived, but which resulted in Jesus’ execution. They had last seen Jesus thoroughly dead and laid in the tomb on Good Friday.
Two days later, he appears to them, and, in effect, sends them this message: “You thought that I was dead, but I am alive. Instead, you are dead — dead in spirit because of your sins — and need life from me. I now give you that life.”
And he breathes on them. That is the impact of this gesture of breathing upon the disciples.
Of course, the risen Christ does not stop there. He goes on to proclaim: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Having received life from the risen Christ, the disciples have the responsibility to share that life with others. They will do that through forgiveness of sins. Just as the disciples have been forgiven by the risen Christ, they, in turn, will forgive others.
In other words, the ministry of forgiveness is not a bonus that the risen Christ has decided to award the disciples because they were good boys. Far from it. The disciples receive this ministry of forgiveness precisely because of their failures and ineptitudes, from which they, by the grace of God, have been redeemed by Jesus Christ.
It is in the midst of recognizing their own sins that the disciples will forgive the sins of others. In doing that, the disciples will share with them the life of the risen Christ.