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franciscan - January 2001

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2000

Et verbum caro factum est . . .

by Ben Quash

In the beginning was the Word.’ But what was and is this Word, the Word that abides with God, the Word that is God, the Word that took flesh and dwelt among us?

These days we pour out words in torrents – more words and more quickly than ever before. We multiply, package and distribute words: across the airwaves, in newsprint, on television. There are big words written over our heads on advertising hoardings, little words hedging us about in the small print of contracts. And these words act on us all the time, shaping our judgements and our behaviour, defining what seems desirable or undesirable for us. Some people make their fortunes by manufacturing and playing with words. Others sell words, or specialize in giving words a particular ‘spin’.

There is more to come. We have now crossed the threshold of a new era in the history of the human exchange of words: the era of information technology, of the internet. Words – considered and unconsidered, some weighed carefully, others thrown away lightly – have limitless free play in the electronic connections across the planet.

All of which presents us with a shocking thought. It is quite conceivable that before long, we will have the means of making information (words) available to every person on the planet – yet still not be able to offer them food or healthcare. This puts the greatest question mark over the value of our wordiness. It reminds us that words can pile up in mountains and not nourish us. They can reach us at the push of a button and yet not satisfy us for more than a few moments. Words can exhaust themselves trying to say something which can only be expressed in an action. That action might be completely silent, like embracing a leper, or the daily acts of faithfulness and love which make the words of a promise or a vow into something more, a lived reality. Or providing food and healthcare for the poor.

Words too often fail to be the thing that they seek to represent. Certain advertisers and politicians, for example, take advantage of the way that words can misrepresent, mislead, or be heard in two ways. Even with the best intention, good people cannot be sure to make words work for them as they should. They encounter the frailty of human words: their frequent inability to carry the truth of things, or achieve what ought to be. Even the best words fall short. They need to be substantiated, given content, from beyond themselves, to have their barrenness turned into fruitfulness. They need to ring true.

‘In the beginning was the Word.’ So what Word is this? And what is the difference between this one Word and all our many and various words, frail, inadequate, partial? For Christians, the difference is that this special Word is God’s Word. And when God speaks, there is no falling short, no difference between what is said and what is meant. The gap is bridged. The Word is not just with God, as St John rightly says, the Word is God, full of grace and truth. It is God becoming immediate and concrete for us.
When we make a promise, it may or may not be kept. The mere words need to be substantiated by our keeping of the promise in action, and with a whole heart. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. But God’s Word is not the mere token of a promise that might or might not be kept. God’s Word does not await substantiation: it is already substantiated. It is flesh. It is the fullness of God’s presence, communicated to us, with nothing left out, nothing misleading, nothing designed to deceive, nothing that will undernourish or fail to satisfy the desperate and the needy. ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.’

The writer Dennis Potter, who died of cancer several years ago, raced against his own painful illness to get down the words of his last screenplay. It was about a human head that is frozen, and then reactivated in a distant future, its memories replayed on a screen while scientists watch. The ‘head’ is closely based on Potter himself, and, at the end of the play, its longing for release is honoured by one of the scientists, in the face of all the commercial pressure to market and exploit the memories inside it. It is detached from all the machinery that keeps it alive. All at once a great rush of images floods the screen – snippets of conversation, moments of intense happiness, laughter, one following the other in a great rush. Finally, blissfully, simply and quietly the word ‘yes’ is spoken. The word floats above all the others, emerges from all the others, as the word that justifies them all. It is a great affirmation. Dennis Potter made his last word ‘yes’. At the end of all words is a word. The word is not long or clever. It is simple.
If there is a word that comes even close to communicating God’s Word – the Word that was in the beginning and that will be at the end, the Word that became flesh – then it is perhaps the simple word ‘yes’. It is the ‘yes’ of God that is the beating heart of the doctrine of the Incarnation. It meets us in the form of a substantial human person, the person of Jesus Christ, God’s ‘yes’. Our humanity lies scattered – partial, fragmented, unfaithful. We inflict violence on each other; we inhabit societies that institutionalize and perpetuate such violence. We tell half-truths. We ignore poverty and hunger. We have all fallen short. And yet the Word’s becoming flesh is a ‘yes’ to our human nature nonetheless. It is God’s affirmation of being human. It is a word in action, and in action on our behalf. The birth of the child in Bethlehem cannot be revoked. The Word that was with God from the beginning has been spoken to us and for our benefit once and for all, giving final substance to every other word which came before it and comes after it – all the implied and promised ‘yesses’ heard and hoped for by men and women throughout history.

The first person to realize this amazing truth – to realize the nature of the Word, the great ‘yes’ that was coming into the world – was Mary. And she responded with her own ‘yes’. A quiet one; not a wordy one. A ‘yes’ that made its own promise in response to God’s, and substantiated that promise in the faithful bearing of new life. That is the model for us, now, as we celebrate in lives of concrete discipleship the fleshly miracle of the Incarnation.

We also are asked to respond to the Word that is a substantial, personal ‘yes’ in the form of the living Jesus. We are invited to commit ourselves to making our inadequate words into active, living words of grace, a transformation for the world. These words may not be wordy or high-tech. But their aim, like Mary’s, will be to give birth to the new life of God – to God’s ‘yes’ – in substantial, real ways. Their aim will be to find new ways in which to say ‘yes’ to each other – especially to the outcast and the destitute – and to say it truly. God’s Word will not be revoked. It was in the beginning, and it will be at the end. It is up to us to let that Word – that ‘yes’ which is Jesus Christ – sound in us, and to bring all our words, long and short, private and public, to participate in him, God’s one Word, the light and life of all. f

Revd Dr Ben Quash is the Dean of Peterhouse and teaches in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge

 

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