In the Christian religion, we have a lot of labels we use to reference Jesus of Nazareth. Some of these may sound pretty odd to non-Christians: “Lamb of God,” “the Son of Man,” “Light of the World,” “Alpha and Omega,” “Bread of Life,” among other labels. As Christians, we sometimes take these terms for granted and don’t necessarily reflect much on what they mean. They are just such a common part of our liturgical lexicon. Unless someone stops and asks us, we may not pause to reflect on what these terms really mean.
I’d like to explore one of these labels a bit: “the Word.” At the beginning of the Gospel of John, the author begins with the mysterious statement:
IN THE beginning [before all time] was the Word (Christ), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God Himself.
He was present originally with God.
All things were made and came into existence through Him; and without Him was not even one thing made that has come into being.
In Him was Life, and the Life was the Light of men.
And the Light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness has never overpowered it [put it out or absorbed it or appropriated it, and is unreceptive to it].
(quoted from the Amplified Bible John 1:1-5)
When compared to the language in the other three New Testament gospels, this opening to the Gospel of John is pretty odd-sounding stuff. I’ve always been a little perplexed by it, not confident I could explain it to others. Recently, I think I may have had a bit of an epiphany on its meaning, however.
God truly works in mysterious ways. I read a lot about theology and biblical scholarship. But my little epiphany did not come from something I read. Instead it came about through an experience I had recently.
Last week I came down with a nasty cold. It started as a head cold, then traveled south and triggered the worst case of laryngitis I’ve ever had. Losing one’s voice is kind of a catastrophe for someone who teaches. Being able to talk is critical to do my job.
My Wednesday class had to suffer through my hoarseness. And things were so bad by Thursday that my students that day had to put up with my use of an annoying microphone to be heard. I don’t teach on Friday this semester, so after my Thursday class, I’ve tried to be quiet and refrain from talking entirely. I’ve been to the doctor and I’m taking all the right meds. But unfortunately the best thing for laryngitis is quiet. The voice needs to rest and recover.
So the past few days I’ve been forced into a fast from talking. I tell you, it is tough! Although I cannot talk, that doesn’t mean I’ve been able to withdraw from those around me. My family and I still have to interact to do things around the house and to maintain our relationships. We have chores to get done, we want to share ideas with one another, my kids want to ask me questions. It is tough to do all that without talking.
We had to get my daughter to soccer practice Friday, then she had a double header of games on Saturday. Our family went to church this weekend. In all these interactions, people talked to me and I needed to talk back. Information needed to be exchanged. To avoid offending people, I had to pantomime the situation with my laryngitis to explain why I was apparently giving them the cold shoulder.
Unfortunately, my husband and I had previously volunteered to usher this past weekend. It was hard to do that without the ability to talk because the responsibility of an usher involves a lot of hospitality and guiding people attending the worship service. Again, without a voice, that is pretty tough to do.
Our family’s house church group had its monthly meeting Saturday night. It is a fun time where a handful of families come together to worship in a small group setting, share their faith and some yummy potluck. Because it involves a lot of talking, I had my husband and kids go on without me. I stayed home alone.
Over the past few days, I’ve limited my interaction with the outside world. My family has been on the front lines of my inability to talk. I’ve been quite disappointed with my husband’s inability to read lips. He’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known, so it has stunned me that no matter how slow I mouth a simple one or two word message, he never seems to know what I’m saying. Not even when the mouthing of words is augmented by some pretty darned clear pantomime. Meanwhile, he’s been ticked off at the handclapping and snapping I’ve had to resort to in order to get his attention at relevant times to do my mouthing and pantomime.
My daughters’ skills at charades are frankly not that hot either, which often has left me as the recipient of blank stares and crumpled brows. It has been frustrating to have to write out my words. It takes too long and apparently some people say I have messy handwriting. (OK, in truth, this seems to be a unanimous sentiment in the Pease-Wingenter household.) A faster typist, I’ve had to resort to e-mailing my husband a few times while he was only a few feet away.
Other times—actually many times in the past few days--I’ve just had to give up on getting my message though. When even a few key words couldn’t be understood by my family, I sometimes had to just waive the proverbial white flag. As long as no one’s life was on the line, I had to accept that I couldn’t always get my message across, and there would just be messes to clean up later as a result.
All of this has given me a greater understanding for the importance of human language and oral communication in our ability to conceptualize God.
Throughout human history, God has tried to reach us in different ways. The Hebrew Bible story of Joseph illustrated the idea that God has sent people dreams to communicate ideas, but not everyone has had the ability to interpret what God is telling us in those dreams. God is often said to speak to our hearts. That too is an inexact means of communication because we humans do not always comprehend fully. In a few instances, God has taken less subtle approaches to reach out to us. But most of us will not experience a burning bush in our lifetime.
Christians understand Jesus of Nazareth to be God’s son sent to us, fully human and fully divine. This is quite an astonishing concept. The Creator of the Universe becomes a mortal human being. This idea certainly sets Christianity apart from all other religions.
Some may question why an omnipotent god would do such a thing. It may not make sense. Indeed, even as a Christian, it is something we contemplate but may not fully understand. We use terms like “mystery” to describe it.
This week with my laryngitis, I felt like I understood that mystery a little better. Human language is imperfect. It doesn’t always capture fully what we are trying to express. But it is a powerful tool nonetheless. Sending Jesus to live among us, to use human language to teach us about God’s Kingdom was a brilliant way to get through to us. Jesus taught us primarily through his words. He spoke Aramaic to those with whom he interacted. He used terminology they understood to help them comprehend God.
Moreover, he did this through oral communication. Jesus’s ministry was not a ministry of letters. There was no e-mail or texting. He did not write books. Indeed, most of the people in Jesus’s society were illiterate. Writing his message down would not have been an effective means of communication.
Instead, Jesus talked to people. A lot of people. He spoke to those around him where he lived. He traveled and approached strangers to talk to them. He attracted crowds and he talked to them too. He did not express himself through mime, dance or the dramatic arts. He spoke words.
And those words changed those who heard them. They perceived a truth in Jesus’s words they had not previously known. That experience inspired radical reactions. People left behind the life they knew to follow Jesus in his ministry. They were so drawn to his words and the concepts behind them. They were clearly very deeply moved.
I think we sometimes take words for granted. Even those of us, like me, who work in a profession based on the importance of words. Words matter. They change people in profound ways.
We also tend to take for granted the criticality of oral communication. That is the key way we as humans interact and express what is inside us. My recent forced abstinence from spoken words has helped me not take all that for granted as much. And it has given me a new appreciation for the appellation “the Word.” Thank goodness Jesus had a healthy voice and was able to communicate orally!
With many such parables [Jesus] spoke the Word to them, as they were able to hear and to comprehend and understand.