It seems that today the Queen will tell us all that 2019 has been, quote, ‘quite bumpy’. An interesting choice of words, typically diplomatic and understated, but leading to much speculation as to what she might really have in mind. Well, frankly, where do you start…?
When I was teaching English in college, I often tried to convince students that language might be the most powerful capacity we have. Not everyone bought my theory: one said she thought architecture had more of a claim. But words are important. Depending on the choices we make, words can destroy and cause hurt, but they can also build up and bring healing.
To try to talk about God is very difficult. All the words we use are picture language. The abstract language used by philosophers and theologians is just as much picture language as the more down-to-earth illustrations that have helped many of us relate to God when we say our prayers, or try to say something meaningful about the Divine – when, for example, we call God Creator, Father, Guide, Strong Rock, Shepherd, or whatever else it might be. As so often, when confronted with mystery, words fail us. And even the words we do have, like those we say and sing this morning – in the Gloria, the creed, the readings, the Eucharistic prayer, the carols and, definitely, the sermon – all have their limitations, for all these words point beyond themselves to something which may actually be inexpressible.
We ask too much of language when we expect it to convey this profoundest mystery of all. As the poet T.S. Eliot put it: “words strain, / Crack and sometimes break under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place.” How can religious people speak about the God who is both high and deep, beyond us yet within us, encompassing all that has been, and is, and is yet to come? ‘To whom then will you compare God?’ asks the prophet.
Paradoxically, perhaps what the preacher should be saying is that there is nothing to be said. On this holy ground, seeking to encounter this mystery we call God, we can only fall silent. Christmas could make contemplatives out of all of us. Pascal once said that all our troubles derive from one basic fault: our inability to sit still in a room. That is what the contemplatives and mystics down the centuries have always understood. They teach us that, when the words run out, we become open to God in new ways. Well, there’s one idea for getting out of preaching a Christmas Morning sermon! But sorry, Santa isn’t quite that kind!
Yes, all our language is, in the end, inadequate. But we need at least to attempt to say something about God in the only way we can as humans – through language. It is language which gives meaning to the human experience; it shapes our understanding of reality. That is why language, and the way we use it, is so crucial. And an important thing for religious people to remember about language is that it changes and develops: it is organic, not static. It is through language that we can, at least tentatively, express what we understand about the nature of God, and our experience of God, while still recognizing that all the language in the world will never be able to sum God up, and all our images put together will never exhaust the Divine. In the introduction to his Gospel, which we read at Midnight Mass, John makes the astonishing claim that God has spoken to us by a single word, and that ‘Word become flesh’ is Jesus.
2019 has been a year of many words. Some of them have left us speechless. And, like every year, we have had to say farewell to some influential voices. Among those who have inspired, entertained, or irritated us and said things we’d rather forget, are: Clive James, Jonathan Miller, Toni Morrison, Doris Day, Jeremy Hardy, Andre Previn, Robert Mugabe, Jacques Chirac and Albert Finney. That’s to name only a few. It may be you’ve lost a voice that was central to your own life through a personal bereavement. Goodbyes are hard words, and they abide in our soul, especially at Christmastime.
There have been words of change and division this year: Yes, No, Leave, Remain. It feels like we’ve become more fragmented on opinions and issues, be that pro- or anti-EU, immigration, or national identity. 2019 has had revolutionary moments when words have become contested and fierce. Prophetic words – and actions – of Extinction Rebellion have brought plaudits and frustrations in equal measure, but with a cry for a type of politics willing to respond to the environmental crisis.
Words that do damage and are nothing short of cruel seemed to abound this year, whether directed at politicians outside Parliament, in the streets, or in the form of vitriol posted on-line, often hidden behind a shield of anonymity. The way people have spoken words to each other has too often become coarse and crude. Public voices casually and repeatedly broke the taboos of good behaviour and language decency.
Words themselves seem to have become less trustworthy this year: fake news; bias; distortion; manipulation in the way news is communicated. Is it the case that everyone has their own version of the truth, their own way of interpreting facts? Should we believe, as one American journalist suggested, that, unfortunately, there’s no longer any such thing as facts?
With all that experience of how words have operated for us this year we come to Christmas Day and to the Christian conviction that God has spoken to us in the Word made flesh. God’s Word, and deed, was to share human life and, by sharing it, to change it. That’s because God’s Word is a word of dissent to what we are prone to believe and the ways we are prone to behave. Today’s Word, symbolised by this crib scene and the star which appears above it, is indeed Jesus – Immanuel, meaning ‘God is with us’.
If we want fulfilment of life and a template of how to live a life of purpose and meaning, then there is one defining word that speaks volumes, a word more powerful than anything which rises from our animal spirits. I’ve had the privilege of conducting a number of weddings this year. The first words in the Church of England marriage service are quite often those perhaps written by the same St John who describes Jesus’s coming as the Word made flesh: ‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.’ One wedding couple chose a charming reading which began like this: ‘As two lovers sat quietly, alone for a while, he turned and said, with a casual air, (though he blushed from his toes to the tips of his hair), ‘I think I’d quite like to get married to you.’ ‘Well then’, she said, ‘well, there’s a thought, but what if we can’t vow to be all that we ought?’ Even on a wedding day, even on Christmas Day, when kindliness is in the air, we can’t vow to be all that we ought. The words of vows, pledging to be our very best, soon come up against the fragility and the limitations of our human life. We can’t be all that we ought. We fail ourselves; we fail those we love.
Which is why the Word made flesh living among us, showing us what the Divine planted in human frailty would look like, not only shares our life, but offers to change it. He comes to us as love and offers to change us through the power of love: in being loved; in finding love; in giving love; in acting out of love; in striving for the justice which is the manifestation of love in society and between nations; in using love as our absolute measure of truth, so that those qualities which we really trust will grow strong – mercy, forgiveness and compassion.
Christmas is about the triumph of love. When the world becomes coarse and cruel, and neglects kindness and dignity, the Christmas crib reminds us everyone is lovingly precious to God; that history is full of people whose influence still lives on because they acted out of love. There are times we can’t fix the world, but we can claim the fact – and here today celebrate that it is a sacred fact – that light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than enmity, hope is stronger than despair. At Christmas, God says, ‘I give you my Word’, communicating with us in terms we can understand, in the gentle gurgling and cooing of a baby, who grew up to speak words that can still transform our lives and our world. Happy Christmas!