WHEN I was a youngster, one of my party pieces was to recite the only Russian which my mother had taught me. I can still do it: “Ya gaviaroo parooski”. As a child, I thought it sounded rather impressive.
I later learned, when visiting Russia, that it is a singularly useless thing to be able to say if it is the only Russian sentence you know. It means — as connoisseurs of the Russian language will be aware — “I speak Russian.” I don’t. Neither did my mother, capable though she was. “Ya gavioroo parooski” was, for some obscure reason unknown to me, the only Russian sentence that she had learned. She passed it on to me as part of a well-rounded education.
If you are going to communicate with people, you have got to choose the right language. It is an obvious point, but one that is is not always easy to adhere to. There are, after all, since Babel, so many languages.
Translation can cause great misunderstandings. As a child, my mother had a French penfriend (you’ll have gathered by now that she was a cosmopolitan kind of woman), and this penfriend looked up the English equivalent for “Dieu vous préserve”. She then carefully inscribed at the end of her letter “God pickle you.”
Misunderstandings can cause offence and not just amusement: there was a famous occasion when President Carter was making a speech in the former Soviet Union, and his interpreter had him referring not to our desire for the future, but to our lust for it.
EVEN if you get the right tongue, language is a slippery thing, because it is always changing. When, in the 17th century, a monarch visiting the newly built St Paul’s Cathedral, described it as “awful, amusing, and artificial”. Each of those three words has changed its meaning in common parlance: St Paul’s was “awful” in the sense that it inspired awe, “amusing” in the sense that it delighted, and “artificial” in the sense that it was a great work of human hands. “Awful, amusing, and artificial” is not a phrase that we would now generally think of as being complimentary when applied to a building or a work of art.
A new layer of possible confusion has arisen since the advent of spelling autochecks. Whole websites are dedicated to the hilarious misunderstandings that they can produce (most could not be repeated in the Church Times). If ever you are feeling bored, I recommend looking at such a site — though not surreptitiously, during a sermon, because, if you’re anything like me, they will make you laugh out loud. LOL.
LANGUAGE is a particular problem for theologians and preachers. How, for example, can the true meaning and depth of what we celebrate at Christmas be put into words? Language, we are told by philosophers nowadays, is absolutely basic to what being human is all about; but it seems so often to be appallingly inadequate when it comes to communicating anything of real importance.
The problem is not only the theologian’s and the preacher’s, though: it is God’s, too. How can the great and powerful God who is totally “other” communicate to us in a language which we will understand?
The prophet Isaiah speaks of a vision of the Lord “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. And the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6). These words speak of the glory, the mighty wonder, the awesome majesty of God. We know that God is powerful — how else could God have created the universe and all that is in it?
But God is so powerful that, if he were to be revealed to us in all his glory, we would be totally overwhelmed, and he respects us too much for that.
God is totally “other”. God is “beyond” in every sense — beyond knowledge, beyond experience, beyond understanding. As St Augustine says: “What then, brethren, are we to say of God; for, if we have understood, we have understood something other than God.” The idols that Richard Dawkins and his like choose to construct and call God — essentially creatures which happen to be very powerful — bear no relation to the true and living God of whom the prophet Isaiah struggles to speak.
SO, GOD has a problem communicating with us. What language can God use — a language that will speak to all peoples? A language that will communicate to us something of the wonder of God’s being, but not overwhelm us? What we celebrate at Christmas is God’s glorious solution to that problem. In what Christians refer to as the incarnation, God has chosen a language far deeper than words in which to communicate.
What better language could there be than the birth, life, and death of a human person to speak of God’s reality and being? This is stuff with which we are familiar, to which we can relate, whatever our language or nationality, and which will not crush us. God became a human being to show us what God is like. And what do we learn, apart from the fact that God is powerful? What is the substance of the message contained within that human life — the birth and life of Jesus?
With the birth and life of Jesus, God speaks extraordinarily good news. He tells us that “the All Great is the All-loving, too.” It’s not just that God approves of love and thinks that it is quite a good thing, but that it is God’s very nature, God’s essence. God is love, St John tells us.
Mother Julian of Norwich, the great medieval mystic and visionary, puts it thus: “Wouldst thou know thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? . . . Learn it well: love was his meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed he thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it he? For love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same.”
If we “learn well” the Lord’s meaning in the incarnation, we shall see that it is love that is the mother tongue of the human race. For love is the essence of the Godhead as shown forth in Christ, and we are made in the image of God. Although it is our mother tongue, it is a language in which, tragically, we have lost our fluency; for we do not “hold ourselves therein”. We need to be drawn back to this language by the celebration of the great and glorious event which we remember at Christmas — and, by the grace of God, every day.
AT CHRISTMAS, the day when God entered the creation as a baby, we celebrate the beginning of that one perfect life of love which changed the world, and which has allowed us all to rediscover our mother tongue. We are what we speak, and the birth and life and death of Jesus speak the language of love: not in a sentimental or complex philosophical fashion, but in a human life that was the personification of love. From this one life, human and divine, we see that the true language of human life is love.
As Evelyn Underhill puts it: “He speaks in our Language and shows us his secret beauty on our scale. The depth and richness of His being are entirely unknown to us, poor little scraps that we are! And yet the unlimited life who is Love right through — who loves on every plane and at every point — so loved the world as to desire to give his essential thought, the deepest secrets of his heart, to this small, fugitive imperfect creation — to us. That seems immense.
“And then the heavens open and what is disclosed? A baby, God manifest in the flesh. The stable the manger, the straw; poverty, cold, darkness, these form the setting for the divine gift. In this child God gives His supreme message to the soul — Spirit to spirit — but in a human way.”
Further, the language of love which God speaks to us through Jesus is not only a statement about God. It poses a question that invites a response from us. We know enough about love to know that it must be returned if the outcome is to be good and glorious. Unrequited love is tragic. So, the Christ-child invites us to return his great love, to rediscover our mother tongue of love and speak that language fluently in our own lives, just as he spoke it with his. Only when we speak the language of love in our lives do we discover our true humanity. That is why St Augustine writes that “We know in so far as we love.”
Our joyful vocation is to become part of this great love story — the greatest love story ever told — and, in so doing, discover our true humanity. We need to stay with the Christ-child and let him grow in us so that he can teach us the language of love and give us grace to speak it fluently with and in our own lives.
Then God will truly be with us, Emmanuel.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.