Holy Spirit, Breathe on Us

Thou camest to our hall of death,

O Christ, to breathe our poisoned air,

To drink for us the dark despair

That strangled our reluctant breath.

So writes Martin Franzmann in my school’s hymn of the year: “O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth” (LSB 834). With strong and striking text, he could almost be predicting our 2020 world of “poisoned air” and “reluctant breath,” thanks to the awful virus. It may be a novel coronavirus, but there is nothing novel about sickness and death, though it is fresh in our minds these days. Since our first parents partook of the fruit of the forbidden tree, our air has been poisoned, our breath both reluctant and short, and our despair, indeed, dark.

What is novel is the sacrifice of a man—a God-man to be precise, coming to breathe in our air sans mask and hand sanitizer. What would Christ say of these modern times? I can’t say for sure, but it might be something like “take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Consider what may be our “hall of death” today. Is it the coronavirus unit in the hospital? Is it a hallway full of unmasked school children? Is it our own churches or our own homes? Courage, dear friends! Let us not forget that Christ has walked the ultimate hall of death for our sakes, harrowing hell in His own victorious death. The God-man who touched lepers and rubbed His own spit into another man’s eyes, who called forth the stinking dead man from his tomb and dipped bread into a shared cup with His betrayer hardly leaves us to fend for ourselves amid such sickness.

Our Purpose Is Life

Stanza 1 of the hymn recalls our purpose, or rather, that which is not our purpose:

O God, O Lord of heav’n and earth,

Thy living finger never wrote

That life should be an aimless mote,

A deathward drift from futile birth.

Life is far from meaningless. God has decreed that we have a purpose; we do not merely exist until we die, drifting like a mote of dust in a light breeze. Instead:

Thy Word meant life triumphant hurled

In splendor through Thy broken world.

Since light awoke and life began,

Thou hast desired Thy life for man.

Notice the violent language of the stanza above. Life triumphant hurled. The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ Himself, triumphed over death. He has traversed a broken world to die so that we might have life.


Sharing Life in a Broken World

And what is it that causes the brokenness of this world?

Our fatal will to equal Thee,

Our rebel will wrought death and night.

We seized and used in prideful spite

Thy wondrous gift of liberty.

Our sins and our pride have wrought it all. We were given liberty, and we used it wrongly. Consequently:

We housed us in this house of doom,

Where death had royal scope and room.

A house, a world, where death reigns. But see what happens next:

Until Thy servant, Prince of Peace,

Breached all its walls for our release.

The stronger man has come into the house to release us from the hold of death, to release us from our house of doom.

Dear Christian friends, we have life! We have the Gospel, the “great good news”! Our hymn describes:

How beautiful the feet that trod

The road that leads us back to God!

How beautiful the feet that ran

To bring the great good news to man!

In a world of coronavirus, we can be the beautiful feet that run to tell the Good News that Christ has come to destroy sin, sickness, and death!

Breath in the Time of Coronavirus

But then comes the greatest faux pas of 2020: we entreat someone to breathe on us!

O Spirit, who didst once restore

Thy Church that it might be again

The bringer of good news to men,

Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more. (Emphasis added.)

Surely not! Our churches and religious institutions are under the greatest scrutiny as we gradually reopen. We dare not step one toe out of line. Don’t breathe on us, surely! Put a mask on, stand six feet away! Don’t even think of breathing on us!

But there it is, bold and sure of itself: “Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more.” Of course, Franzmann is not a man of the year 2020, how was he to know? The point, I think, is not to be audacious, but to make us see that breath is life. Breathe on us, Spirit, to restore us as one! Breathe on us to restore us to life! “That in these gray and latter days”—that, at least, seems appropriate to the situation:

That in these gray and latter days

There may be those whose life is praise,

Each life a high doxology

To Father, Son, and unto Thee.

Our breath, our singing, is under attack today. The fear of bringing sickness and death to unsuspecting—or very suspecting—neighbors, friends, and relatives is real. While I do not mean to diminish fear of the virus that has indeed destroyed lives, I proffer instead a perspective that breath is life. We may breathe in poisoned air, but Christ recalls us from our hall of death. He who once lost all breath, who suffocated upon a cross, restores to us our breath, our preaching of the Gospel, and our singing as a sign of life.

May our lives in these gray and latter days be a high doxology to the triune God who breathes on us in our poisoned air to grant us life eternal.

Scripture: ESV®.
Hymn text taken from Lutheran Service Book. Text and tune © 1967 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission.

God has given us all beautiful gifts in our ability to create music. To continue doing so in a safe setting, download the PDFs below for song suggestions for small choirs and handbell choirs.

Download the PDFs


Picture of Marie Greenway
Written by

Marie Greenway

Marie Greenway has worked and volunteered as a church musician since childhood. She graduated from Hillsdale College with a degree in music and was formerly the music teacher at Immanuel Lutheran School in Alexandria, Virginia. Now, she has shifted from spending the day teaching other people’s children to spending the days and nights raising her own. Marie continues to stay involved at school by teaching piano lessons and coordinating the after-school music lesson program. When she is not teaching lessons, answering emails, or changing diapers, Marie loves to go on walks, read books, sight-read music, hang out with her husband, and risk all dignity earning smiles from her daughter.

Subscribe to all CPH Blog topics (Worship, Read, Study, Teach, and Serve)