Magazine article The Spectator

A Season to Relish Language Deeper Than Words

Magazine article The Spectator

A Season to Relish Language Deeper Than Words

Article excerpt

One of my favourite accounts of a happy childhood is told by Laurie Lee in his delightful book Cider with Rosie. Early on, he describes his first day at school. As a new boy in the playground for the first time, he was nervous and frightened of the noise, the size and the numbers of his fellow pupils. Going into the classroom, the teacher was busy with the other pupils. She told him to 'sit down there for the present'.

The young Laurie duly obeyed and sat down quietly in his place. When he got home he was obviously upset and disappointed. His mother asked him whether he liked the school. He told her he wasn't going to school tomorrow. When she asked him why not, he cried and said, 'They told me to sit there and wait for the present. I waited all day and no one gave me a present.' That story tells a great deal about children's understanding of language. And not just children. Words can mean different things to different people. Words can be creative and informative, beautiful and noble.

They can be destructive and malicious too.

Words once spoken can never be taken back.

For better or worse, they take on a meaning of their own, defined and understood by the reader and listener in ways that the speaker and writer may never have intended.

The countless words of radio and television, of newspapers and journals are intended to communicate information, convey truth and form opinion. The volume of words travelling back and forth by mobile phones, email and BlackBerries may well convey information. But do they communicate truth?

At the heart of the Christian story is the truth that God communicates himself not just in words but in a person. The gospel of John expresses this in a language which unites Hebrew and Greek thought and gives us an insight into the deepest thought of God.

When God speaks, he doesn't just talk about himself but reveals his innermost life. Verbum Caro Factus Est. The Word was Made Flesh.

If we wish to know the truth about God, we listen and learn and enter into communion with Jesus, the Son of God, who became human so that we who are human might encounter the divine Emmanuel, God with us. Here is language that goes deeper than words. His language is sacrificial love which took him to the cross. Recognise love poured out to the point of death on the wood of the cross and we are able to catch a glimpse of the divine child in the wood of the manger.

The evangelists, and subsequent writers of the New Testament, try to capture these truths in a universal language, accessible to people of all times and circumstances. The accounts of the birth of Jesus in the gospels of Luke and Matthew are multi-layered, drawing from different sources to convey eternal truth. The question that presents itself in a different way this Christmas is what do these stories mean for us today? Like Italo Calvino's definition of a classic, the New Testament 'has never finished what it has to say'. It has to be translated into the unique circumstances of each individual life, into the challenges and circumstances of the present moment in order to speak of the transforming power of God's intervening in my story and the story of our age.

These eternal truths are often better conveyed through signs and symbols, through poetry and music rather than dry, descriptive accounts. The universal language of the Nativity speaks to people of truths which go beyond words. The singing of carols, both ancient and modern, evoke truths taught from the earliest life of the Church continually needing to be unfolded and translated to speak to people of our own age. …

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