The Word for the whole person

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 Neither of these is less than the Word which we hear with our ears, nor is that Word set aside or superseded.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.

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4 Responses to The Word for the whole person

  1. steve martin says:

    Right.

    The Word is actually DONE TO US.

  2. John H says:

    Yes: exactly. Good way of putting it.

  3. Mack Ramer says:

    Interesting thoughts. I certainly share that distrust of language.

  4. Matt J. says:

    John, these posts on language have been really super. Growing up in a tradition where the sacraments were minimized, I’m trying to find more richness in them. This is a good piece of the puzzle I think. I also have a Catholic friend who going back to school in philosophy. They’re being given a lot of this language deconstruction schtick. Anyway, it reminds me of this quote from Merton.

    “When what we say is meant for no one else but Him, it can hardly be said in language. What is not meant to be related is not even experienced on a level that can be clearly analyzed. We know that it must not be told, because it cannot. But before we come to that which is unspeakable and unthinkable, the spirit hovers on the frontiers of language, wondering whether or not to stay on its own side of the border, in order to have something to bring back to other men. This is the test of those who wish to cross the frontier. If they are not ready to leave their own ideas and their own words behind them, they cannot travel further.”

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