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I love words. Spoken, written, sung, remembered, invented, translated – words are beautiful to me. Libraries are right up there with forests as top-tier happy-places for me, and if you present me with a really good poem (or a really bad pun!) I will instantly chalk you up as a kindred spirit.
This makes John 1 a particularly delicious passage for me. As much as I love the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke, John’s mystical, mysterious descriptions of who Jesus is and how he came to be are absolutely captivating. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. What an opener! As my son used to say when he was small, “That’s a big idea to chew on.”
I like to think that during his years on earth, Jesus also appreciated good poetry and laughed until his sides ached at bad puns. It’s fun to imagine him as that kind of kindred spirit – how could you be The Word and not be a lover of language? Even reading the accounts of Jesus clapping back at the also-word-savvy Pharisees is satisfying. It seems like Jesus always knew exactly what to say. Wordiness is next to Godliness.
My upbringing in the Baptist church reinforced this natural leaning in me. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” we recited. Be ready with the right words in all situations. This is imitating Christ, the Word made flesh, after all!
And then, as it does for all of us, situations come where we do not know the right words.
A friend loses a child in a terrible accident.
A family member faces a devastating diagnosis.
We meet with someone that we’ve drifted apart from and don’t know where to start.
A loved one with a history of deep trauma slips back from the progress they’d made into old destructive behaviours.
Suddenly it doesn’t matter how big our vocabulary is or how dedicated we are to being prepared to give an answer. Words fail. Explanations fail. Confident predictions fail. We find ourselves saying or writing, “I don’t know what to say.”
And yet – I wonder if thinking of this as “failing” is not quite it either. When we go back to John 1, there’s a hint of this in John’s evocative prose. When the Word arrives on the scene, what does the Word do? Speak, write, read, explain, preach? It’s true, Jesus did these things in his ministry, but the verb John gives us is none of these wordy ones. The Word lived among us. The Word made his dwelling among us. The Word was present with us. This was how Jesus made himself a kindred spirit at the most fundamental human level.
My husband’s grandmother, a wonderful woman who has lived in Portugal all her life, speaks very little English. During one of her visits in Canada, she and I were sitting together quietly. I was thinking about all the things I would like to ask her, to tell her – but I didn’t have the words to piece those ideas together, nor the knowledge of how to interpret what she would say in reply. I scraped together my meagre Portuguese to tell her that. “I want to ask you things, but I wish I had more words,” I said, haltingly.
“Ah, Catarina,” she beamed at me, putting her arm around my shoulder, “a única palavra que importa é AMOR.” The only word that matters is love. I got teary and gave her a big hug.
This Advent and Christmas season, like its predecessors, will bring poetry, songs, prayers, conversations, jokes, memories – so many good, beautiful, life-giving words. And it will likely also bring its share of moments where we don’t know what to say, moments where we wish we had more words that would somehow solve things for ourselves and our kindred spirits. My prayer for us all is that The Word will be living among us in all of this, and that we can know in the deepest, wordless part of ourselves, that the only word that matters is love.