In my last post, we looked at the need for a means by which language can be transcended (without being destroyed) in much the same way that, in the Trinity, we find personality being transcended.
The Christian revelation achieves this in at least two ways. First, in the person of Jesus himself: the incarnate Word. Any word about God will inevitably be reductive, giving only “the impression of capturing reality”. However, in Jesus we see not a word about God, but the Word who is God. To know God, therefore, is not a matter of hearing and understanding words about God, but about relating to Jesus as the Word.
However, this appears to do no more than push the problem back a step. We are to know God through the incarnate Word, Jesus; but how are we to know Jesus, other than through words about him? This brings us to the second way in which the Christian revelation helps us escape this dilemma: the sacraments.
In the sacraments, the Word about Jesus – the Word about the Word; indeed, Jesus the Word himself – comes to us in ways which transcend the mere conscious reception of words through our hearing or reading. In baptism, the Word is combined with the water to create a “a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit”. In the Lord’s Supper, the word spoken by Jesus through his minister turns bread and wine into his body and blood. It is through those words that “forgiveness, life and salvation” are given to us as we eat and drink the body and blood in faith.
So we have the Word which washes us, the Word which we eat and drink. Neither of these is less than the Word which we hear with our ears, nor is that Word set aside or superseded. Rather, the sacraments are a means by which our whole person, body and soul, conscious and unconscious (or “pre-conscious” in the case of an infant being baptised), encounters and receives that Word.
In that context, not only are the sacraments a vehicle for the Word, but the Word itself becomes sacramental. The Word that we hear with our ears (or read with our eyes) becomes more than merely a conscious reception of words about Jesus (and hence about God), but a place where we encounter Jesus himself. This is especially true in the reading of Scripture and preaching of the gospel in church. Superficially these can seem to us to be only a conscious hearing of words about Jesus. However, understood sacramentally, it is Jesus himself who speaks to our whole person through them.
All this “cannot be expressed with words, and it cannot be expressed without words”; it can only be received by faith, through the work of the Holy Spirit.