|*"The Faces of Easter" by Jerome Berryman (from Godly Play, volume 4). |
Artwork by Peter Privett, Godly Play UK
The great news of Advent is that when God wanted to speak with us he did not just send out a Tweet.
In fact, he didn’t use words at all, even shorthand. In one of the stories I tell children*, the first part contains this paradox: “The Word became a wordless child.”
Though we should have seen it coming, this is unlike anything humans had come to expect of God. By the time Jesus was born, the Israelite experience of God was mediated by the words of the prophets and the midrash of the rabbis. To know God was to meditate on God’s Word.
Though Advent does not negate the fact that God speaks, it unmistakably proclaims that the Word is so powerful he speaks without words.
Advent thus invites us to practice silence before we presume to speak a single word. Advent is God’s way of taking the word communication and giving it an amputation to save its life. Advent reminds us that the best way to communicate is to commune, to dwell with and to abide. When God sent his Son, it was more messy than mere messaging.
The other day a friend said they have a feeling that, as they age, they have more to say, important things to say, important words to write.
That is likely true. And I believe it is true of all those who keep growing as they age. Anyone who matures in the process of aging will have more important things to say along the way.
But maturity also considers: “What is the most helpful way to say something? And how much needs to be said? And when? And to whom?” We all have words, many words. Maybe our words would carry more weight if we used fewer words, gentler words. And maybe one’s words should be first directed to oneself before presuming those words may be a gift to others.
Advent gives us pause to consider: In what ways do our words, our many words, engender the wisdom of silence, the quietude of a trusting heart?
I am especially mindful of the great confusion we suffer because of the volume of words we are exposed to every day. It is telling that we need many words now to set straight what news sources may be trusted. It is even more ironic that most people are ready to offer their counterargument to such news stories about news stories. One wonders when there will be a news story about the arguments we have about news stories about news stories.
It is astounding that Twitter, a site predicated on the idea of brevity, overflows with so many sets of 140 characters that it is impossible for any single person to keep up with just .0000001 percent of its active-user content. Yes, that number represents real math.
Yet, this is the platform millions of people follow to hear from society’s media and political leaders, to hear what they have to say straight from the source, in real time. What’s even more sobering are the things these leaders choose to say when they Tweet, the amount of time they spend on words, words, words that will soon be so deep in the feed no one will care anymore what they said by the end of the day.
People often think of the Bible as a long book, but one can read it in its entirety with relative ease in the span of a year. When I consider that countless numbers of humans have been meditating on the same words for thousands of years now, it fills me with awe.
Consider the power of God’s words. We are familiar with them already, even if we haven’t read the Bible lately (or ever).
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
“The Lord is my shepherd.”
“Love your enemies.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Give us this day our daily bread.”
“Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”
That verse about Immanuel occurs twice in the Bible: once in the prophet Isaiah and once in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. Matthew adds the note that the name Immanuel means “God with us.”
It is striking that when God came to be with us in the person of Jesus, we hear very few words from him before he is 30 years old and even then his teachings are so brief we can read them easily in one sitting. He taught many times in parables, a form of storytelling so brief I refer to several parables every year in my ministry with children. In fact, I have seen preschool children learn to tell the parables themselves; they are that simple.
What I find amazing about this is that God’s words are for everyone, both young and old. God’s words are simple enough that a child (even a very young child) can reflect on them; yet, God’s words are rich enough that one can meditate on the same words countless times over the course of seventy years and still discover new treasures in them. Consider all that has been written on this simple prayer of Jesus, uttered as he was dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And consider that humankind has yet to grasp the full meaning of those words; it’s unparalleled.
The children with whom I work also learn the first recorded words of Jesus, which he spoke when he was about 12 years old. Note the simplicity: “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
I love how Immanuel’s words to Mary and Joseph came in the form of a question. That should teach us something about our own words. Later, we come to understand why he was in his “Father’s house” and why he replied to their query with another query. He said, “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” (John 8:28)
I experience these words as personally challenging, because it makes me wonder how often I speak without first considering if it is something God would say. To what extent do I allow Jesus to be my teacher and, if I claim he is my teacher, do I let him train my tongue?
I still have a lot to learn. I suspect we all do.
Yet, with all these reflections I still marvel, especially during this time of year, that when God wanted to speak to us, he did so not with words but by choosing to be present with us in a wordless way.
In many ways his communing with us was even smaller than a Tweet and yet the message of love has endured for generations and will continue to endure for all generations to come.
I pray we allow that truth to change the way we live in a world swirling with words.