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Tuesday 25 December 2018: Christmas Day

The Word speaks

By Brett Ward

Parish Priest of Holy Trinity Eltham in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark


Context: Christmas morning Mass attended by a mix of regular and occasional worshippers

Aim: To explore how St John’s use of “the Word” can connect with our experience and celebration


Familiar words

If you had to learn poetry at school, whether you loved or loathed it, it’s likely that some of those phrases have lodged themselves deep within. Words have the power to reach deep into our memories, into our hearts, into our emotions and attachments. Change the words of a popular Christmass carol, and there’ll be blood on the tinsel! And despite the fact that most of us have been worshipping in modern English since the 1970s, 16th Century English is still often used for those ingrained words of the Lord’s Prayer. Liturgically logic doesn’t always carry as much weight as emotional attachment.


Familiar words give us a resource to draw on, but they can also become so familiar we stop listening to them. When we do that, we risk not only losing the meaning but losing the ability to be surprised by all that’s contained within the words we use.


English is a language which is rich and complex. Our vocabulary is vast, with shades and nuances of meaning, subtleties and variations that leave words open to lists of interpretations. The French gave us the term double entendre but it’s English which has really given that term life.


Words with tone

The words we use are important. But just as important is how we say them. You may remember Maggie Smith at her acidic best in the film Gosford Park. A young woman in a glamorous emerald gown walks into the drawing room before dinner and all heads turn. Maggie simply says, “Green is such a difficult colour.”


And since I’ve diverted slightly, we can recall the power of tone of voice used for possibly the two most famous words in any English play: “A handbag?” Tone is important because words are meant to be spoken.


Words existed eons before anyone ever had the idea of writing them on a stone tablet or a piece of papyrus. It’s in being spoken that a word is given life, it becomes something more than it can ever be scribbled on a page. The voice transforms a word into something three-dimensional.


The Gospel Word

Provided, while the Gospel was being read, you didn’t start dreaming of a roast turkey, you’ll have seen where all this is going.


In the beginning, God spoke a Word. He spoke The Word. And God’s Word wasn’t written in a book, inscribed on wall or scratched in clay. His Word was spoken, acted out; his Word was en-fleshed. And the tone he used was the tone of love.


Through the ages, God had spoken often and frequently, as Hebrews reminded us. The prophets had faithfully proclaimed his words for centuries. But now, it was just one Word. But this was the Word with a capital “W”. This was the Word unlike any other that had ever been spoken.


No other word has ever borne within itself such a weight of love and self-giving. No other word carried such a promise of transformation. No other word shed such brilliance of light. No other word could or would expend itself, and in that self-offering explode into life for the world.


St John’s poetry is full of key words that he’ll use again and again in all the chapters that follow. Life. Light. Glory. Truth.


Those words speak to us of the love pouring forth from the one Word. They point us to the experience of love which is revealed to us as totally unconditional. The loving tones with which God speaks are tones which resound with the patience, gentleness, openness and tolerance that none of us deserves…none of us deserves, but every one of us receives.


In the Word made flesh we hear the voice which somehow enfolds us in the mystery of unstoppable love. The life of the man St John called the Word would be one that not even the clamour of death could drown out.


The Word in us

In today’s glorious feast, we encounter that Word. We hear him as a Word spoken for others, we see the beginnings of a life lived for others.


The words we speak can be empty mumbling. Yet enfolded by that enfleshed Word, even our faltering tongues are given something new.


Our words of fear, of doubt and suffering, of anger and comfort, joy and anxiety: all our words are caught up in the echoes uttered and lived by that one Word. And all that we are and do is given new meaning because of that one Word.


The mystery that took place in Bethlehem, the enigma of a Word spoken by God, tells us that no human life is beyond hope. No human life lies outside the scope of God’s concern. No human experience is past the reach of God’s compassion. This is a Word which dwells among us – and dwells within us.


Today we celebrate the uttering of that Word in our ears and we hear his call to let the Word be spoken through our lips to the world which is hungry and noisy and often hopeless.


The Word became flesh. Let him speak. Let him speak.

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