Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Word is Flesh and Blood

Launch of The Word is Flesh and Blood*

St Mary's Priory, Tallaght

16 February 2012

We launch this book for Wilfrid just ten days before the Academy Awards in which it seems that the most successful film will be a silent one, The Artist. I have not yet seen it but have been struck by what it might mean for us, that people are ready for a silent film. We can at times feel ambivalent and even negative about words. Words are meant to facilitate communication and communion between people but they can also be experienced as a hindrance to that communication and communion. Like other currencies, the value of words can fall and rise: ‘words are cheap’, we hear in one context; ‘thank you for these precious words’, we hear in another.

In all the deeper experiences of life – love and birth, suffering and death – words become inadequate, and we turn instead to silence, to music, perhaps to poetry, a kind of musical speaking, or to prayer, and we struggle on. The most wonderful things, the most terrible things, leave us flabbergasted, gob-smacked, at a loss for words.

What about the Word, then, the ‘Word of God’? Professor Dawkins’ hair will fall out completely because not only do we believe that there is God but also that we have been addressed by God, that God has spoken and speaks to us: in creation, in scripture, throughout history, through the Church, above all in Christ. Are we mad?

When the Dalai Lama came to Blackfriars he said he agreed with everything the Christian speakers had said about the human search for ultimate reality through meditation. A perceptive questioner put this to him: ‘Does ultimate reality seek us?’, to which the Dalai Lama replied ‘no, we seek ultimate reality but it does not seek us’. Christians however believe that God does seek us: ‘this is the love I mean’, we read in the first letter of Saint John, ‘not our love for God, but God’s love for us’.

A book about Scripture that was still valued when Wilfrid was teaching us here was The Word of God in Words of Men. How can we dare to think that any of our human words – the language we use for commerce and war, for technology and politics – that these same words can be put at the service of the Word of God, that they can be made to carry a meaning that is transcendent, human words lifting us to the infinite?

But our speaking can aspire to be a speaking of the Word of God because God has first spoken to us. To adapt the text from 1 John, ‘this is the speaking I mean, not our speaking to God, but God’s speaking to us’. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word is flesh and blood for we believe that Jesus of Nazareth, prophet and teacher, is the revelation and the presence among us of the Eternal Father. It is a strange translation, not just from one language to another, but to call a person ‘the Word’, or to call ‘the Word’ a person. We do it easily because it is so familiar but it is mighty strange.

Wilfrid taught us that the Hebrew word dabhar, for a word or a name, when it was used of God speaking was always a creative word, for God’s word brings into being the reality it signifies. God’s word is always, as the prophet Isaiah puts it, ‘a word that does not return empty but succeeds in what it was sent to do’.  God’s final Word, God’s most profound Word, God’s eternal Word, is the utterance of Himself that is the Son, and we believe that this Word, the Eternal Son of God, became flesh in Jesus Christ, our brother and our saviour.

The Word is flesh and blood. Jesus Christ is the Word of God for us, in his human nature, in his acts as a human being, in his teaching, in the impact he had, in his healings and exorcisms and forgiveness of sins and restorations to life. Wilfrid’s work takes him back again and again to the gospels, texts he describes as realistic and wise, gracious and spiritual. Even when he is writing about parts of the Bible that seem far from the gospels Wilfrid remains focused always on the God of the Bible, already being revealed to the patriarchs and prophets and wise teachers of the Old Testament. The God of the Bible is definitively revealed in Jesus of Nazareth who teaches us, and shows us, that God is a prodigal father, prodigal in compassion and love.

So the answer to our question, how can we dare to think that human words can ever aspire to carry the Word of God, is Christ. Speak of him and you are speaking human words; tell of him and you are speaking of the divine Word. By a nice coincidence here is what Saint Ambrose of Milan has to say about this in today’s liturgy:

‘It is also written: Open your lips, and let God’s word be heard. God’s word is uttered by those who repeat Christ’s teaching and meditate on his sayings. Let us always speak this word. When we speak about wisdom, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about peace, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking of Christ. Open your lips, says Scripture, and let God’s word be heard. It is for you to open, it is for him to be heard. So David said: I will hear what the Lord says in me. The very Son of God says: Open your lips and I will fill them.’

We believe that our lives find their meaning in this conversation, the communication and communion that unite God and humanity, the marriage of God and God’s people. There is the further mighty strange translation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the living bread giving his flesh for the life of the world, the Lamb sacrificed from the foundation of the world. Our loving service of the Word of God obliges us to enter also into communion with his sacrifice, the fate of the Incarnate Word at the hands of a world dominated by fear and division.

The book we launch this evening is as much about the Eucharist as it is about the Bible. Jesus, the bread of life, is also the living bread, his flesh given for the life of the world and his blood poured out for us and for our salvation. The creative words of God find their way to the lips of human beings as sacramental words that not just describe or indicate but that bring about the realities of which they speak.

But that’s enough, an aperitivo for the book. These and other themes are considered with care and scholarship in the chapters of The Word is Flesh and Blood. The book was edited and written joyfully. Wilfrid can take responsibility for that. It was a very easy task to undertake. Busy people responded immediately and enthusiastically to our invitation to write something in Wilfrid’s honour. That in itself is testimony not only to how well respected he is as a colleague and as a scholar, but also to how well loved he is as a friend and as a brother.

*The Word is Flesh and Blood: The Eucharist and Sacred Scripture, edited by Vivian Boland OP and Thomas McCarthy OP, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2012. This book is a festschrift in honour of Wilfrid J. Harrington OP on his 85th birthday.

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