The Life-Giving Word

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent: Isaiah 55:10-11, Matthew 6:7-15.

The Word of God: could there be a more exciting topic for those of us with degrees in English? If your academic training is centered on how words create and describe culture, then the Word of God in scripture is the pinnacle of significance. In addition to literature and cultural studies, we moderns have scientific systems for analyzing words and languages: semiotics (thanks to Ferdinand de Saussure) and linguistics (looking at you, Noam Chomsky), to name some biggies. But humans have always been aware of the power of words. The Judeo-Christian understanding of the Word of God is that it is not just an utterance with theological significance, but the very mechanism of creation. From the beginning of scripture and Jewish consciousness, this has been the case. Imagine if every time you spoke of something, it came to be. That’s the Word of God.

We read an engaging set of verses about the Word from Isaiah in today’s readings. Suiting the beauty of his imagery, the living Word of God, Jesus, gives us the Lord’s Prayer in the gospel according to Matthew. What a day of readings!

Isaiah’s verses form a lovely piece of poetry. He says that just as rain and snow water the earth, “making it fertile and fruitful, Giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats,” so God’s Word “that goes forth from my mouth” will act in the world. We receive a promise from God that his will will, in fact, be done: “It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” For me, this is greatly comforting and reassuring. In a world that appears more godless by the minute, I begin to fear God’s will is completely betrayed and somehow lost. But God assures us that his Word is a generative, active force, as reliable and inexorable as the rain that makes the earth fertile. It’s not up to me to make sure God’s will is done (although I pray for it daily); his Word contains all of the power needed to complete his will. Thanks be to God!

Stained Glass Design, Moses (1900-1910), Frederick James Shields | Creative Commons, courtesy Bantock House and Park/ArtUK.

This Word is such an active force — and issues from such an inscrutable source — that Isaiah, just a few verses prior to today’s reading, prophesies to the Jews: “See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God” (Is 55:5). This “calling” of other nations happens 700 years after Isaiah in the form of the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. Isaiah describes the remarkable spread of Christianity to this day.

Let us contemplate this amazing Word. The Word of God is evident in the time of promises, in his covenants with Abraham, Moses, David, and other figures in the Old Testament. His Word generates action in the Chosen People, who alternately live out his commands and are blessed or betray them and incur wrath and misfortune. It manifests itself throughout the history of the Jews, but not just as words inscribed in stone tablets as if a dead text. In fact, Moses breaks the tablets — they’re not the point; the Word must live actively. The Word continues to flow forth from the mouth of the prophets; it spills into the dreams of men and women; it orients every action recorded about these people.

And we cast back further to find that the Word always existed. It was the very generative force that made the cosmos. It issues forth from God, both an integral part of Him and somehow ontologically separate from Him. St. John opens his gospel with perhaps the most complex and beautiful words in all of scripture: “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” (Jn 1:1-3). Indeed, we hear from Eve in Genesis that they are told about the garden and the forbidden tree from God, so we know that the Word was with them at this point. The Word of God is not made, like the other aspects of the cosmos, but is “with God” and “is God” from the beginning. Even deeper, here, the original Greek word is logos, which does mean word but also means an organizing principle, something that makes meaning.

And in the opening prologue to John’s gospel, we of course read that “the Logos became flesh and lived among us.” That is, the generative Word of God, the organizing principle of the universe that enables meaning to be made, well, it took on human flesh. Our ancestors in the faith would have recognized the incomprehensible power in this person Jesus Christ, the logos in the flesh, even if it comes to us 2,000 years later as a sort of ho-hum story. Something new happened that ended the time of promises and began the end times: the Word that existed from the beginning is made flesh, has a mother named Mary.

Is this really the same Word of God that we know has been active throughout the history of humanity? Our Church Father, Origen, verifies this in his Commentaries on John when contemplating the death of Jesus:

But while it is certainly a man who died, the Truth, Wisdom, Peace and Justice, of whom it is written, “The Word was God,” was not a man; and the God who is the Word, and the Truth, and Wisdom and Justice, is not dead. For the Image of the invisible God, the First-born of all creation, is incapable of death.

This insight sheds light on the resurrection. It does not diminish the sacrifice in the least, as if the Word of God knew he could not die so Jesus’s Passion and death was just a show. In fact, it elevates the Passion, death, and resurrection because God deigned to truly suffer and die for us instead of ruling the created world in power (simple!) or majestically exiting the scene as an untouchable deity might (like the Greek gods would in their mythology). Consider that. The Word of God deliberately chose a specific way of becoming man, revealing the truth in Himself, submitting to human authority, suffering, and offering Himself back to the Father in the greatest act of love. This life He led was not an accident and He certainly had as many other options available as you can imagine (and more we can’t imagine).

His only Begotten Son and the Word of God (sketch for a fresco in the Cathedral of St. Vladimir in Kiev 1885-1896), Victor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov | Wikimedia Commons

Why? What causes the invincible Word of God that made all of creation choose such a torturous existence as a human? It might just be that it is the perfect way for Jesus to be the ultimate teacher as well as the very method of our salvation. As a simple man who bleeds and suffers, he is our brother, yet as the life-giving Word, he alone can accomplish our salvation. As a human like us, he demonstrates in his life how to have a relationship with the Father, but as God he brings the reality of the Father into the world to forever change it. He is both the role model and reality being modeled.

This brings us to the reading from Matthew where Jesus inhabits the role of teacher when he says, “This is how you are to pray.” And then we are given the Lord’s Prayer, the depths of which are too great to plumb in a simple blog post. If you want to better understand the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, read Pope Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth, which contains a great 40-page chapter devoted to the Lord’s Prayer.

But let us note just a few things. We hear echoes of Isaiah’s verses in “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Remember, He promises that his Word “shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” Thus, we signal our acceptance of how the Word acts in the world, and we give it our blessing, our hope for its speedy success. 

The second thing that strikes me is the verbal equation, “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I’ve always wondered why this isn’t stated the other way around, i.e., “as your father forgives you, you should forgive others.” I think my confusion stems from the use of the word “as,” which I typically take to mean “in the manner.” Thankfully, today’s reading includes the verses following the bestowal of the Lord’s Prayer, where Christ doubles down on the formulation and explains what He means: “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” Aha! I should be reading it in this way: “forgive us our trespasses if we are able to forgive those who trespass against us.” Even if we do everything according to His will (such as forgiving others), we must also pray for his grace and salvation, which is not guaranteed but a gift.

As we return to Isaiah’s verses that God’s Word will make the earth fruitful and do His will, we are struck with just how true this is and in how many ways we can see it. God’s will that we are brought into perfect communion with Him: the liturgy is established by the Word made Flesh; his will that men testify to His truth at the risk of their own lives: the saints and the martyrs; his will that we love our neighbors as ourselves: countless acts of true charity done in the name of the Lord. Christ the Word has made this possible on earth in a way it was never possible before his great sacrifice.

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