I have blogged on several occasions regarding the burden and joy of language. It seems appropriate, on Epiphany/Theophany, to say something about knowing and making known and what that has to do with language.
We are created in the image of God. That means we not only “resemble” God (see 1 John) and are able to be the “in-templed” by God, but God is also able, via the Mystery of union, to express/share/reveal Himself through us (see 2 Corinthians 5). God desires to speak through us and so we are speakers.
Humans possess a mysterious ability to understand. Free will is involved. So is reason and intuition. Memory is one aspect of that capacity and gives us the ability to relate to what we call “the past.” Another is story-telling. Yet another is a certain attitude or way of relating to what we call “the future.”
The aspect that captures my attention this morning is articulation. As I said, mankind speaks, portrays, and explains. But why? What is the drive and what is the goal? God’s design is one thing. Our design might be another. Let’s take the noblest course.
We seek to include the other in our own life. We do this by sharing our very life in the form of articulation. Our words and deeds (which include a huge variety of things) are not, primarily, for the purpose of sharing information but of sharing our very self. The goal in this sharing is to find the one and the many who also seek to share their very self. The desire is for a moment and a lifetime of mutuality. In essence we seek to share a common life – commune – “to become one with.” This involves invitation and response.
This sharing is essentially relational and not propositional.
Of course the opening chapter of St. John’s gospel seeks to communicate this by referring to the Son of God as the “Word of God” and specific language regarding “invitation” and “response” and “union.”
None of this is vague in St. John’s gospel although it is certainly what, over the centuries, we have defined as mystical. The communion that communication seeks can never be vague. It must “become flesh.”
All of this involves articulation – the real, honest to goodness, use of language. The written, spoken, and acted out forms of articulation offer us the opportunity to do what we were designed to do – remember, share, pass on what is of essential value, and live in a “leaning into the future” kind of way with a specific kind of expectancy. All for the purpose of achieving not just relational but ontological union (without confusion of identities).
This leads me to share the conviction I was taught and have held for as long as I can remember – salvation is essentially a “conversation.” Now it should be obvious from all I have said that I intend for you to hear the word “conversation” as meaning something more than the “exchange of information.” Our salvation, being essentially conversational, is in and of itself transformative life-giving and life-bearing. There are several reasons:
- It means that salvation is not, primarily, about assent to certain propositions.
- Salvation is a relationship not only with God but with other humans and the whole creation.
- Salvation, if conversation’s goal is shared life, is about shared life – union – the highest form of assent to the truth!
- It validates the undeniable fact that we all have “inner conversations” going on within us and the most important one is “who am I?!” and “why am I here?!” and “does my life have meaning?!” All of those questions, we come to realize, are not, after all, “I” questions but “I/Thou” questions. This is what reconciliation is supposed to mean and be. Life giving interplay between persons committed to relationship in which there is a journey to a new place for both rather than a struggle to get the other person to “agree with me.”
- The conversation is across time and space and involves the created universe not just the universe of ideas. (The Word is flesh too.)
- The conversation bears a result or fruit. Notice I do not just the word product or result. Those are mechanical terms. No, the words must be organic. They must speak of the extension and reproduction and reestablishment of life.
This is all very risky and requires boundaries as well as inclusivity.
Remember that “noblest course” I spoke of earlier? Let’s revisit that for just a second. Articulation and intent can’t be divided. Why do we articulate in all the various ways we do so? Is it to unite or deepen the division? Is it to save or to punish and condemn? These are questions that go to the very heart of our definitions of what we conceive is going on with regard to the saving work of Jesus on the cross. Why does Jesus go to the cross? Is it about the wrath of God or the love of God?
The intention of our articulation is another way of saying our intention of relating to one another. Why do we seek to understand and be understood? Is it about wrath or love? Is it about control or reconciliation – moving to the new “place” that provides the opportunity for union? Is it about the reestablishment of relational union?
The Epistle of James speaks about the tongue and its power to condemn and to save. As far as I am concerned the word “tongue” includes actions as well as words. Our
identity/vocation is, in many and varied ways, to make the life-giving Word of God available in an accessible way to people in a life-giving way. It is our highest nobility as persons to do so.
Jesus’ articulation of God the Father in word and deed was/is, in His own words, “not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.”
At Great Compline for the feast of Theophany one of the canticles says:
Christ is baptized.
He comes up from the water.
With Himself He raises up the world.
He sees the heavens opened which Adam had shut
against Himself and His posterity.
The Spirit affirms the divinity,
since He rushes to join One Who is also divine.
A voice comes from heaven,
for from heaven comes the One Whom the Spirit affirms:
He is the Savior of our souls.
Christ Jesus articulates salvation not condemnation. His use of language that saves instead of condemns. Indeed, I say it again, He is the Word of salvation. Life in Him offers what the world never offers the conversation of salvation – reestablished union through mercy – for us all. So:
Therefore let us all run to the Jordan!
Let us see how John baptizes the sinless brow of One not made by human hands!
Let us in unison join in the Apostle’s song:
“The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all,
shining on the faithful and granting them great mercy.” Source
If we run to the Jordan – say yes to the invitation to endlessly saving conversation, where will it take us? I don’t know and yet I do know.
Let me note another risky aspect regarding verbal and non-verbal language. Here we spiral back around to where we started – mystery. Where will it take us? Deeper and deeper into the heart of God – into Truth, Way, and Life that is Incarnational and actual not simply conceptual or theoretical. Into paradox – into “I don’t know and yet I know.”
Paradox. Communication is paradoxical. Simply put, it is because communication is for the purpose of understanding. We desire to understand and be understood. And we are persons who seek it. Persons, not formulas and objects. Persons.
Language in all of its forms is our way of “putting words on” our need to commune with the “other(s).” But, our need for understanding, if it is to be fully realized, must move into the realm of mystery. If we really desire to understand, we will come to the realization that we will never stop. True understanding is a never ending quest. At one and the same time we understand and yet we know we have understood if we understand there is more to understand about what we have just understood ! ! That is the distinction between mechanical understanding and organic understanding. Saving or transformational understanding does or at least could result in relational union.
St. Maximus the Confessor says this about the revelatory – making known – aspect of the Incarnation:
The Word of God, born once on the level of the flesh, is always born willingly for those who desire it on the level of the spirit, because of his love for men. He becomes an infant, forming himself in them by the virtues; he manifests himself in just the measure of which he knows the one who is receiving him is capable. It is not through any ill-will that he diminishes the manifestation of his own majesty; it is rather that he weighs the capacity of those who desire to see him. And so, though the Word of God is always manifested in the life of those who share in him, yet because the mystery is transcendent, he remains always invisible to all.
Thus the holy Apostle, in wise consideration of the meaning of the mystery, says: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever’ – he knows that the mystery is always new, that the mind in understanding it will never deprive it of its freshness. Source
So, one of the keys to knowing is knowing you don’t fully know and seek to do so and it will take forever. Some have called this the “beginner’s mind.” It is the sweet spot of knowing you don’t know and yet that is how you know.
Our knowledge is partial but not statically so. Our knowledge is gaining width, depth, and height (Ephesians 3 and I Corinthians 13). Why? Because it is relational – conversational. Our vow of ongoing conversation – conversatio morum – is essentially our baptismal vow of relational immersion and fidelity in which we are knowable, inviting others in and saying yes to the invitation into the life of others. It is the scariest and the most rewarding aspect of human life.
St. Augustine speaks of it Eucharistically. Indeed, it is the very heart of the Divine Liturgy. After all we do call it “Holy Communion.” And indeed it is that in more ways than many of us might have been willing to acknowledge:
What man knows all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden in Christ and concealed in the poverty of his flesh? Though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. When he made mortality his own and made away with death, he appeared in poverty; but he promised riches, riches that were only deferred – he did not lose riches that were taken way from him.
How great is the abundance of his goodness which he hides for those who fear him, which he perfects for those who hope in him! Our knowledge is partial until what is perfect comes. To make us fit to receive this perfection, he who is equal to the Father in the form of God and made like to us in the form of a slave, transforms us to the likeness of God. The only Son of God, made son of man, makes many sons of men sons of God. The slaves, sustained by the visible form of the slave, he frees and makes children so that they may see the form of God.
We are God’s children; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. What are those measures of wisdom and knowledge, what are those divine riches, except what is sufficient for us? What is that abundance of goodness, except what fills us? Show us the Father, then, and it is sufficient for us.
In one of the psalms someone says to him from among us or within us or for us: I shall be filled when your glory is manifested. He and the Father are one: whoever sees him sees the Father also. So then, he, the Lord of hosts, he is the king of glory. He will bring us back, he will show us his face; and we shall be saved, we shall be filled, he will be sufficient for us.
Until this happens, until he shows us what is sufficient for us, until we drink him as the fountain of life and are filled, – until then we are exiles from him and walk by faith, until then we hunger and thirst for justice, and long with a passion beyond words for the beauty of the form of God; – until then, let us celebrate his birth in the form of a slave with humble devotion.
We are not yet able to contemplate the fact that he was begotten by the Father before the dawn, but let our minds dwell on the fact that he was born of the Virgin during the hours of night. We do not yet grasp that his name endures before the sun, but let us acknowledge his tent placed in the sun.
Though we still do not behold the only Son abiding in his Father, let us remember the Bridegroom coming out from his bridal room. Though we are still unready for our Father’s banquet, let us acknowledge the manger of our Lord Jesus Christ. Source
The genuine “I don’t know,” that is spoken by someone that leans into relational knowing and being known is rare. It is wisdom. It is The Way.
One day some old men came to see Abba Antony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, “You have not understood it.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” and he replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Antony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know’.” Source
The space into which the revelation of the Son of God shines and abides is the heart of the man and woman who knows they do not know and desires to know; the heart of the man and woman who is alone and realizes “it is not good for man (and woman) to be alone” and seeks to no longer be alone but rather to become one again – the reestablishment of relational union not only with God but with others and the whole created order. And this not in some vague philosophical way. No, it must be a union of body and spirit. To know and be known in fullness of being now and ever and to ages of ages.
God is communicating. Using language to articulate the inexpressible, Himself. He is the message He speaks. The ultimate articulation of Himself is His sharing of Himself. This is why the Holy Eucharist is normative and essential to our salvation. The conversation of relational union is salvation. Behold the Lamb of God. Behold the Word made flesh. Behold Christ Jesus revealed in and as Love. Behold the other and yourself in the beholding of Christ Jesus in love.
The paths of true understanding that arise out all of this are many and intriguing and saving.