The Limits of Language

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent: Numbers 21:4-9, John 8:21-30.

For me, today’s readings expose the limits of language to convey God’s plan. More than language, really, it’s a limit to our very capacity to understand. The reason we call these things the mysteries of our faith is not that they are to be blown over or passed of as simply “unknowable” (that’s a cop out, in some ways). It’s because they exist within a divine logic that we do not have access to here on the earthly plane. I imagine that some saints and mystics have had encounters with this divine logic and entered an ecstasy that included an understanding, in parts, of God’s ways. What this tells us is that pure worldly knowledge and intelligence are poor ways to “interrogate” or understand these mysteries. God IS, and there is an experiential aspect to encountering God’s divine plan. In other words, the more we can exist in a way that is conformed to God’s image, the more our very existence is compatible with Him and the more we can reach a unity within our being that then reveals new insights into the mysteries of our faith.

We discussed the seminal Lenten image of Moses’s bronze serpent on the staff in the reflections Lifted Like the Serpent and Bridging Salvation History with a Serpent. We encounter that full reading from the Book of Numbers today. It is very difficult to understand how this thing that resembles an idol could be prescribed by God, who detests all forms of idolatry in His Chosen People. In fact, the entire thing doesn’t really reveal its meaning until Jesus comes and compares His own Crucifixion with the bronze serpent, which happens about 1,475 years later. This is a good example of the divine intelligence, where millennia are but a breath, where symbols contain a depth of meaning that may only reveal itself in another age. We can react to this in many ways, from frustration to withdrawal. This is why God constantly tells us that He loves us and won’t abandon us. He calls us to Him and strengthens us with opportunities to exercise our spiritual muscle of faith in Him over and over again. The overwhelming message is clear: we are His sheep, we need to trust in our Good Shepherd. His plan is unknowable to us as calculus is to a sheep, likely infinitely moreso. 

When I first really grappled with the first reading some years ago, I was left with a lot of questions. It’s somewhat funny that the text just plows along without anyone’s doubt being expressed. That’s why I was pleased to find that I wasn’t the only one imagining that Moses’s introduction of a bronze staff would have been met with some skepticism. The excellent series The Chosen opened episode 7 with this exact scene, and Joshua confronts Moses with all of these doubts. It’s worth a peek if you haven’t seen it:

Moving to today’s gospel reading, we find that Jesus’s words are oddly unilluminating for the Pharisees. When I read this passage, I find myself frustrated, undoubtedly as St. John must have been when recalling the exchange. Every time Jesus offers a kernel of truth about Himself or a piece of wisdom about eternal life, they respond like idiots. This is the perspective of a believer: He’s giving you gold, giving you the truth about His very self, and you respond with lame, cynical questions! And the perspective of an unbeliever: he’s talking in riddles, not answering us in plain language or at least the language we’re expecting.

How can these perspectives be so different? He is the Word of God, the light casting away darkness, bringing intelligibility to the universe. Perhaps this is the genius of how St. John has presented the gospel here. There is no better way to convey the difference between walking the Way and being an unbeliever — it should make those of us who love Christ want to help Him explain to the pigheaded Pharisees, make them understand that the stakes couldn’t be higher here and they’re pissing it away. Think of some of the exchange:

Jesus: I am going away and you will look for me, but you will die in your sin.

Pharisees: He is not going to kill himself, is he?

[My reaction: Miss the point much? He’s concerned about you missing out on your salvation]

Jesus: You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world. That is why I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.

Pharisees: Who are you?

[My reaction: He just told you He is the great I AM!]

Jesus: the one who sent me is true, and what I heard from him I tell the world.

Pharisees: They did not realize that he was speaking to them of the Father.

[My reaction: !!]

Jesus: When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me.

Pharisees:

At this point, my reaction has to move past frustration and figure out what John is telling us about Christ. Is his point that language is simply inadequate to explain the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation? I don’t think so. It’s true, language only goes so far, but language can go much further than we give it credit. That is why the scriptures will continue to reveal the treasures of wisdom to us throughout our lives – they are inexhaustible. As St. Paul tells the Romans, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom 11:33).

But what is required is an alignment of one’s spirit with the spirit of Truth. Simply put, we have to want to encounter God. If we don’t want to encounter God, it will all seem like rubbish, ravings of a crazy cult. Indeed, we have heard such accusations from atheists over the last few centuries.

Are You Talking to Me? (contemporary), Witold Gilewicz and Janusz Gilewicz | Image from artpal.com.

When we admit to ourselves that we actually want to get to know God, that we’re willing to take on faith the entire tradition and revelation of Himself to humanity, we start to see meaning where before we saw nothing. We are not creating meaning — this meaning existed long before our little brains encountered it — it’s more like we finally moved the radio dial off of static and tuned into the divine frequency. In our gospel reading today, Jesus is broadcasting loud and clear to those tuned into the divine frequency. The Pharisees, sadly, are not just on static, they’re on their own channel that broadcasts nothing but politics and self-assuredness.

Jesus tells us something else of great importance at the end of today’s reading: “The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him.” Remember, with every revelation about Himself, He is instructing us on the Way to the Kingdom. He is our role model, our high priest, and our Savior. The more we can be like Him, the more we will be on our way to the Kingdom. And here He shares that the divine frequency carries more than just wisdom. It is a spiritual reality where God Himself walks alongside us. “The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him.” The promise is the same as it has always been: God will not leave us alone, and in return we should do what is pleasing to Him. It’s amazing how the core of our faith is always this simple covenant of loving care. But this is more real than perhaps we ever hoped! Jesus tells us that the very real being of God is “with” him and “has not left me alone.” We have to be open to the ways of the Spirit and spiritual realities to understand this, but once we open ourselves, the reality is stunning.

This is no distant judge from on high who checks His list each time we sin. This is our shepherd and partner every step of our life. He doesn’t leave us when we’re exhausted and crabby, or when we can’t afford a meal, or when we suffer an embarrassing failure. This should transform how we pray to Him; He is much closer than we imagined, much more interested in giving us His mercy and help than we thought. The psalmist writes beautifully on this:

Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. …

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works    (Psalm 139:1-8, 13-14).

Medieval artist’s rendering of King David as the psalmist in the Rice Psalter (mid-1400s) | Image from christies.com.

This is a great aspect of God’s Wisdom for us to comprehend: not only does God exist, not only does He care that you do “what is pleasing” to Him, He is so close to your being that you could never escape even if you wanted to. Why are so many of us spending our lives running away from the source of all goodness that springs up like a well within us? It’s time for us to tune into the divine frequency, to walk the Way with Christ who has always been right here with us.

2 Comments

  1. Suzanne Marie Topp Mozdy

    I can’t help, because I am reading the old testament right now, to think about the juxtaposition of yesterday’s reading how when the sin was being done the judges could not look toward heaven. In today’s reading, it is saying we have to look into our sin, trust God in our journey of looking into our sin and repent to be saved. Just a little thought I had.

  2. DiscerningDominican

    Great point! Yes, looking at the bronze serpent and also how we crucified our Savior – gazing at these sins seems to be a reminder from God to find healing in our awareness of our fallen mortality. Only when we are aware of how flawed we are can we fully turn to our Father for His embrace.

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