IN THE beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
WORDS are twisty, fidgety, flickering little things. As a writer, I know this well. Words fascinate me deeply, but sometimes they run away with me. Or from me. Sometimes they run out altogether.
Watch a child learning to talk, and you may glimpse that moment of excitement when they first discover that speaking a word like “biscuit” or “drink” can get them the thing itself. The word “biscuit” is not a biscuit, but magically it represents one enough to produce something sweet, crunchy, and edible.
The next thing you might notice is the frustration and confusion when the child says “biscuit” again the next day and is given a custard cream where previously the same word produced a bourbon. Words represent slightly different things to different people. The need of a child to develop extra language in order to ask for the things she wants is the same need that hits a poet, chewing the end of her pencil and wondering exactly how to describe the sunset she’s looking at so that other readers will understand that precise shade of deep purple and its contrast to that dying burnt orange.
Every single word we use is a tiny metaphor. It only represents the thing we are talking about. But when God uses a word, it results in the thing. God’s word is creation. He says, “Let there be light”, and the thing he is imagining becomes reality (Genesis 1.3). He says, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (Genesis 1.9), and creation obeys. Not only does creation obey God’s words, but it does so with a kind of echo of them, so that “the heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19.1); the psalmist creates an image of the sky full of speech and words that can be heard everywhere, in every language: “Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19.4).
Studying English at university, we discussed different definitions of poetry. My favourite was Tom Stoppard’s: “Poetry is the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.” In other words, the fewer words you can use and the greater meaning you can express with them, the closer you are to a perfect poem. God said, “Let there be light.” In Hebrew, that’s two words. What a poem!
Another definition came from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who defined prose as “words in their best order”, and poetry as “the best words in the best order”. Poets do their best to hone and define their word choices so that they are able to conjure up images, creating little worlds in the imaginations of their readers. God, the ultimate poet, uses word and order perfectly enough to create everything.
The apostle Paul writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2.10). The word translated “workmanship” is the Greek poema. While it is the root of our word “poem”, that’s not what it actually meant in Greek; it would be wrong to translate it as saying that we are “God’s poem”, since the word was not used in that way until centuries later and in a different language. On the other hand, the whole of creation is God’s spoken word in living form. Everything appeared through God’s words. Everything is God’s poem.
The writer of Psalm 19, of course, like John writing the prologue to his Gospel, is a poet attempting to line up his own little words in the right order to describe the Word. No wonder he finishes his psalm with the prayer, “Let the words of my mouth . . . be acceptable to you, O Lord” (Psalm 19.14). Human words can only go so far to explain God, but, as Christians, we believe that the Word became flesh. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, because, as the Word himself, he is not just a description, not just a metaphor. He is Emmanuel — God with us.
This is an extract from the BRF’s Advent book, Image of the Invisible: Daily Bible readings from Advent to Epiphany by Amy Scott Robinson, published by BRF at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10).