I remember asking about it in tenth grade biology. How and why the concerted rhythms of the body keep humming, uninterrupted, cycling on and beating out the moments of a human lifetime. The heart begins to pump within about 18 days of conception and it continues to do so until it stops. The heart seems to know the secret of perpetual motion. If you ask what makes the heart beat, you will be told it is triggered by an electrical impulse. If you press, you will find that the electrical impulse occurs first in a group of cells deep in the tissue of the sinoatrial node. When you ask what causes the impulse, you are back at the beginning. I researched this and suddenly I recognized the pattern. It’s the old question of first causes, of what made the Bang, of the chicken and the egg. No one can tell me.
Let’s ask instead what makes the lungs breathe. I asked the computer. I rubbed it out on the keys like the brass lamp of a genie for the almost-omniscient internet to tell me what I want to know: why the lungs breathe. I read, “A serious answer is that we have autonomic responses. The need to cycle air is one of these.” Translation: the lungs breathe because they need to in order for us to live.
The heart beats, the lungs breathe. Life. God’s first gift to man, given and re-gifted when we lost it. He breathed it into Adam and he “became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7) He gave it to the dry bones of a mighty army in Ezekiel 37. Even after the dry bones grow into bodies they are not alive until God calls breath from the four winds to come into them, and they arise.
Yesterday was a sunny Sunday morning in Lent and we stood in a stone church with colored glass and sang a song about the cross. A song with devastating words, really, but I saw something significant about crucifixion. It’s a death of suffocation. It’s the loss of breath. Jesus slowly gave up his breath and God’s first best gift of life. That we should breathe again.
The longest walk, earth’s darkest day
The pressing crowd, his mounting pain
A heavy load of grief and shame
Breathless that we should breathe again.
“Father, forgive them” comes his cry
Silence from God blackens the sky.
A creeping dread in every heart
Lost in the world now God departs, God departs.
(from “Never Alone” by Simone Richardson, 2006)