Soon Out of Breath

From “Sermon for the Consecration of Francis White” (1626)

“When he had spoken these words, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Ghost.’”…

The Fathers shall tell us. St. Augustine writes that it signified the procession of the Holy Ghost, to be from Christ himself the Son, as well as from God the Father. Athanasius and St. Cyril write that it signified Christ to be him, who at the first breathed life into man, the creator and the re-creator, both one God. St. Ambrose writes that as without the breath there is no natural life, so without the Spirit there is no heavenly life. St. Basil writes that the Spirit begins with a breath and comes on with a wind, not boisterous at first and feeble afterwards, as we use to be.

All these are good. I will be hold to add a fifth, as in those cases we may, that Christ breathed upon them here to show that otherwise they might have been soon out of breath to have run this message over the world; that it was not in the power of man, nor in the breath of his nostrils (God knows) to throw down those strongholds of the devil which they were now to encounter, but that by the Spirit of the Lord and the breath of his mouth it must be done.

Here are significations enough; but we shall stick to St. Augustine’s, as the Church has used it the most considering the procession of the Holy Ghost from the person of God the Son; which is the reason that never after this was there any more breathing to be used by the Church, for that neither Spirit nor spiritual authority proceeds from men as lords and authors of it, but was changed to the lifting up or laying on of their hands who are but God’s delegates and assigns to give men possession of his graces…

When we speak of receiving the Spirit, it is not (as the complainers of our form [of ordination] to the Parliament would have it) the essence or the person of the Holy Ghost that is meant; heaven and earth cannot receive that, and no power can give it. But there is meant by it certain impressions of the Holy Ghost, gifts and graces which the Spirit of God does bestow, and whereby he that receives the office is warranted forever (as Leo speaks) to have the Spirit with him for his aid and support in what thing soever he shall faithfully undertake to discharge its duties. In such sense, then, is the Holy Ghost received in our ordinations. In that of priesthood for their office, and in this of bishops for theirs too; not that both their orders are one, but that both proceed from one Spirit; now there are diverse degrees of gifts, says St. Paul, and but one Spirit. But this or that, the Holy Ghost is then given them, partly to direct and strengthen then in their ways, and partly to assume unto itself, for the more assurance and authority, those actions which belong to their place and calling. And such is the power of the keys…

From the words I gather two things; that they received a Spirit; that they received a Holy Spirit. For first, men may receive a running humor instead of a true and constant spirit. I speak now of grace making free, which the apostles, being fitly disposed, received here, as well as free grace; and in them it was right, a trite spirit, in others it may he an humor only. I wish it were not that humors were not sometimes mistaken for the Spirit, even in clergymen themselves; a fiery humor for the Spirit of zeal; a windy humor for the Spirit of purity; a running, busy, humor for the Spirit of diligence; and a thousand disorderly humors besides for the Spirit of freedom and godly courage, as they call it.

John Cosin (1594-1672) was an English theologian and liturgical scholar. A committed high churchman, he lost his position as master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge during the English Civil War, and went into exile in France. At the Restoration, he returned to England, becoming Bishop of Durham in 1660. Cosin preached this sermon at the consecration of Francis White as Bishop of Carlisle during his early ministry, when he was serving as Archdeacon in the East Riding of Yorkshire.


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