Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his saints;
but let them not turn back to folly.
Surely his salvation is near to those
who fear him,
that glory may dwell in our land.
– Psalm 85:8-9 (ESV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made, that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 (ESV)
Whether we pay attention to the words of our lives or not, they fashion us in fundamental ways. Whatever we do repetitively has formative effects on us, and language, by its very ordinariness, does this daily. Language is everywhere with us: at home, at work, in the classroom, over dinner, at church, in the company of others and in solitude. It’s on the radio, on the television, on computer screens. It’s in our mouths and in our minds and in our ears.
What those words are, the connotations and denotations they carry, the way they are delivered, the choices to elevate some and leave absent others, these shape the kind of life in which we participate, they affect what we experience and think about, and they ultimately shape who we are becoming and the theologies we carry in our bodies. What words do we pay attention to? Whose words? And on what do they focus? What and whose words do we ignore? What words might we do well to ignore instead of amplifying? Or conversely, listen to when we don’t? And what about our words? What do they reflect? What do they say about our hearts?
John names one of the great mysteries of the Incarnation when he writes that Jesus is the Word. What a rich mystery this is, and abundant—as language is—in meanings. The incarnate Jesus is God’s Word to us, his language and being in human flesh, so that he might speak and we might hear. It is, indeed, a relational image—God is thought, word, and breath, and he extends himself to us. We are seen and addressed, beloved, and we are free to listen or ignore.
This Word, John says, was “in the beginning … with God and was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Language is not a human construct. Word preceded world. That Jesus is the Word tells us there is no beginning or end to language, for it originates and fulfills in Jesus, who is eternal.
Our capacity for language conveys that we, too, are relational beings and that God wants to engage with us. It’s easier to understand language as the medium through which we know and communicate with one another, and less so to understand in relation to and with God. How would we ever grasp so ethereal an idea of the Divine God speaking to us and hearing us without it being revealed to our senses? A friend of mine says what we know, we know from the ground up. We can deduce and imagine a great deal, but these begin with the materials of the world. Which is why God came to us in human form—seeable, hearable, knowable—because it is through our senses, including language itself, that we can receive.
Advent invites us to quiet ourselves in the weeks before Christmas and to consider the words and narratives that shape our lives. What words? Whose words? Which narratives? We make ready to hear him, this God who breaks into this weary and droning world. And who could imagine a better interruption?
Almighty God, who sent your Son as your Word to us: Grant us to hear and receive what you say, to respond in faith and trust, and to offer ourselves to the unfolding of your great narrative of redemption; through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions for Reflection
- Consider the questions listed in the second paragraph. What and whose words shape you? In what ways? What and whose words do you dismiss? What might those words offer you?
- What about your own words? What do they convey to those around you?
- What narratives are being offered to you right now? How does the narrative of Jesus’ life challenge or support those?
- How does considering Jesus as Word affect what you think about words?