A word to the church in the season of Advent
My dear brothers and sisters:
During these hectic days leading up to Christmas we are invited to pause, reflect and prepare ourselves to receive anew the One who comes among us as a newborn child. The readings appointed for the Advent season have to do with waiting and listening with expectant and hope-filled hearts for the Prince of Peace. Such waiting and expectation is a sharp contradiction to much that surrounds us and to the fear and hostility that abound across our globe. Also at this time, the forces of nature have conspired to underscore our vulnerability and the impermanence of the mark we make upon the earth. This is not an easy season in which to live.
Recently I found myself waiting in an airport, as I often do, and was caught up in the discrepancy between what I was reading in the newspaper before me and what I was hearing from a near-by television set. The subject was the same but the interpretations were completely different and the language used to defend the positions was fiercely polarizing. Where did the truth lie?
In this season of Advent, as we make our way toward Bethlehem and ponder once again the great mystery of the Incarnation, I find myself reflecting upon the fact that speech or word is the medium of divine self-disclosure: "the word was made flesh and lived among us." I am also reminded that in Hebrew dabar, which means word, also can mean event or occurrence. Words are not only spoken, they happen. In the Book of Genesis God speaks creation into being, and in the Incarnation God speaks his love into flesh in the person of Jesus. Divine speech conveys more than information, it conveys God's ever-creating and self-giving love as an active force and power. Words therefore can possess a sacramental value and speaking can be a sacred act.
Even so, we see and hear around us language increasingly being used to inflame, mislead, polarize and otherwise divide. This is true not only in our national life but in some measure in our church as well. This is not to say that dissent or criticism are unwelcome, or that all voices should be harmonious, but simply that words matter because words matter to God and therefore they should not be the means to unholy ends. Words should not be the product of our fears and hostilities. Holy words can sometimes cloak unholy sentiments and purposes. As Paul tells us, Satan is able to masquerade as an angel of light. The language we use to describe and address those whose opinions differ from our own can either foster or destroy the possibility of discovering Christ in our midst beyond or below the level of our disagreements. Therefore, words should be used in the fullness of their potential to convey something of God's loving care which embraces the whole creation.
"If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love," Paul tells us, "I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." Our speech may be filled with righteousness yet if it lacks the animating force of love the words, however noble and true, will have little chance of revealing Christ. When we are defensive or threatened it is well to remember that in such situations, as Jesus tells us, "the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say." Through the agency of the Spirit, Christ enlivens our speech often by forming in us words which we had not intended to say: words of grace and healing and hope which open a way forward such as we had never imagined and catch us all by surprise. At such moments anger dissipates and is replaced by mercy, and judgment is transmuted to understanding. I have certainly been overtaken by such moments and I am sure you have been as well. Such is the nature of God's grace.
As we contemplate the outpouring of God's self-giving love through which the Word became flesh in Jesus, we might take a counter cultural step and attend with greater care to the words we speak and the words we write. Let us pray our words may carry with them what God most truly wishes to express.
May Jesus, the Word made flesh, speak his love deep within us. And may our words be his word of reconciliation which has overcome all division and gives hope to our needy world.
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA