Apr 23, 2017 - Just Breathe

I was walking down the hospital hallway when I heard an alarm: “Code blue in room 4422.” Looking around for the nearest elevator, I barely made it in as doctors and nurses rushed to respond.

We went up two floors, and as I approached the room, I could see a team working on a man inside and a woman standing outside the room alone. Something from my chaplain training came to mind: when people get stressed, they often forget to breathe. As I went up to the woman, I realized that in fact she wasn’t breathing.

My name is Stephen, I introduced myself. I’m the chaplain on call. Can you tell me what happened? Well, I just went to the bathroom, and I came back, and he wasn’t breathing and he was blue, and I pressed the code blue button, and…

I wonder if all of this feels overwhelming right now.  May I take your hand, ma’am? Could you take a deep breath with me?

When she took the first breath, I could hear the air rushing out of her lungs. Who knows how long she had been holding it all in? The two of us breathed together while the code blue team brought her husband back to life.

The power of breath is amazing, isn’t it? Can I get you to try something now? Sit up straight, put your feet on the floor, and take ten deep breaths.

Notice now how you feel, compared to a minute ago. I would think, more alive and energized.   

I would propose that in this gospel story, we find the disciples in a code blue situation of sorts. They had just watched Jesus—their friend, mentor, and leader—be brutally tortured and murdered. On the one hand, they were worried that the same religious and political leaders would come after them. On the other hand, since a few women in their group had reported seeing Jesus alive that morning, they could have been worried that he was out to get them, angry at them for having betrayed him at the end. As a result, the disciples locked themselves in the upper room, paralyzed, both outwardly and inwardly. If there had been a code blue alarm, maybe they would have pressed it as well.

Then Jesus appears, in the midst of them. What are his first words to them? Peace be with you. “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” The wounds. He showed them his wounds. By his wounds, they recognized him, and their fear turned to joy.

Do you know something else I learned from working a summer in a hospital? Wounds need air to heal. I can remember a heart surgery patient I took care of. I was surprised when I saw him post surgery: the staples and a big scar down his chest. And then the nurse told me. If you cover a wound, it just turns into a festering mess. Wounds need air. Wounds need the breath to heal. I wonder if that was part of Jesus’ healing process, showing his wounds to his friends.

Look at how they respond! They don’t recoil in horror or look away. Seeing his wounds brings them great joy. We see it especially in the encounter with Thomas, who wasn’t present the first time that Jesus came. When Thomas hears about their experience with Jesus, he demands: “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the nail marks and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Jesus doesn’t turn away. In fact, he gives Thomas more than he asks for. Instead of begrudgingly letting Thomas touch him, he takes Thomas’ hand and puts it in his wounds. He knows what Thomas needs and is happy to give it to him.

If we step back and reflect, the strangeness of this encounter will sink in even more, because it’s usually not what you would find, especially with a group of men. Both then and now, when you encounter a group of people in a social setting, what do they do? They gripe about US politics, they talk about the TV shows they are watching, maybe they brag a little about work or home. It takes a real risk to introduce vulnerability into the conversation, and sometimes, if you do, it makes people uncomfortable, so they change the subject, don’t they. Have you ever had that experience, where you shared something personal and deep, only to feel like it wasn’t heard on the other end? Your desire for healing, to give air to your own wounds, was completely frustrated.

Christian community offers something different. These disciples gathered in the upper room on the Lord’s day. I preached this homily at an evening Mass. What sort of worshipping community  do you attend? Instead of bringing our strong selves and covering our wounds, so they just fester more, what if we bring our weak selves to our encounters with God, whether individual or communal: the fears, the hurts, the pain, the doubt that we continue to hold on to? Especially if you come from a Eucharistic tradition, what if you place them on this altar and pray that Jesus comes in the midst of them to transform them?

I love that line in the Roman Catholic Eucharistic prayer: “let your Spirit come upon these gifts, that they can become for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I would paraphrase it: take those parts of ourselves that we are most deeply shamed of, and turn them into something that can strengthen us for our faith journey.

Easter may be over, but the Easter season has just begun. As we await the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus stays at our side breathing with us, breathing in us, so that we can breathe  healing and hope to a world desperately in need of it.