Third Sunday in Lent
I have an almost two year-old friend, Azalea, who is stringing sentences together into increasingly complex stories. A most recent tale that Azalea tells involves Muppet, her cat, sitting in Azalea’s yogurt. Said story is followed by a big little-girl grin, not only because she gets tickled recounting it, but also because she has learned that she can evoke a similar response in other people. She looks for her audience to understand and react to what she says, and she delights in it. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of her conversation.
Although she can’t put words to the concept yet, Azalea is quickly learning that language is power. Words shape reality and emotion. Deployed well and with care, words are a means of grace that create and foster connection: making possible conversation, defining the contours of experience and feeling, offering the ability to acknowledge vulnerability, make commitments, name and address injustices, admit wrong and heal wounds.
Such is the power of words that the early church designated the 40 days of Lent as time necessary to prepare catechists to understand and respond to the words/questions that would be asked of them at their Easter baptism.
Read in conversation through the primary lens of Psalm 19, the lectionary passages for the third week of Lent provides a lovely back-and-forth on the fundamental nature and bi-directional movement of words in the Judeo-Christian project.
Regardless of whether people employ the language of praise or pleading, the Psalms move from people’s mouths toward God’s ears. Within this trajectory, the author of Psalm 19 declares that humans aren’t the only actors on stage with a speaking part. Non-human creation joins the ensemble with their own voices that speak to/of God: the heavens tell, the firmament proclaims, day speaks to day and night declares to night. The Psalmist notably uses the same words for heaven and firmament as found in Genesis 1, neatly referencing the original and opposite movement of words that all the rest are predicated on: God’s speaking the entire created order into being.
The middle of Psalm 19 – an outpouring of gratitude for God’s law – feels like an abrupt thematic change at first, but is inextricably tied to the opening. The Psalmist develops his implicit reference to God’s original utterance with explicit praise of God’s life-giving law – no less than the continued movement of God’s words toward the world.
Conveniently located in the lectionary’s Old Testament selection, the preeminent example of law-giving is the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue or the Ten Words. Appropriate. God provides law as a mechanism by which Israel can respond to the way “God has ordered life” in creation to make “coherent and peaceable” our interconnected reality: life with God, other humans and the rest of God’s creatures. (Spirituality of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann, p. 23). Rather than being one-way declarations that stonewall a response, God’s law is an invitation into conversation. Law is God using words like Azalea to evoke within Israel a response that mirrors God’s character.
Having extolled the world’s speech to God and God’s words via creation and the law to the world, the Psalmist closes by asking that his own words be acceptable. With this lovely twist, he holds up heaven and earth as exemplar pray-ers and links himself to fellow creatures in a conversational posture oriented toward the One who spoke them into being.
That’s probably enough to ruminate on already, but I can’t help taking this one step further. God does, and the lectionary invites us to go there, so why not join the fun. (Full disclosure: My inner linguaphile is completely geeking right now!)
The lectionary picks and pairs a pericope from the Gospel of John, which sets up the entire book with this fantastic turn of phrase, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). The Word is enfleshed in the body of Jesus (1:14).
Pause. Hold the phone. Time out. Seriously – take a hot minute or three to let those words sink in.
Jesus’ body not only recapitulates the entirety of God’s speech to the world, but ultimately redeems/shores up our end of the conversation when it’s lacking, absent, irrelevant or otherwise unacceptable. Jesus is the bi-directional movement of creative speech between Creator and created. Jesus is perfect conversation. And we’ve got an invitation to join in the banter; Jesus creates space for us. (Inner linguaphile just fell out from pure delight.)
Both the Gospel narrative and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians make plain as day that we will not always understand what is going on in this definitive communing. That which God attempts to evoke in us by inviting us into God’s conversation with Israel doesn’t always make sense in the moment (John) or in our context (Corinthians). Nor are we capable of holding our own, but that doesn’t matter because Jesus speaks on our behalf.
Words are power. Words can be grace. We are called to discern how to participate in this cosmic dialogue such that we co-create realities and redemptive possibilities informed by the Word.
What realities do you and your congregation create with the words that you currently speak? How are you spending Lent this year listening and trying to better understand God’s conversation with us and our fellow creatures? How can your community’s words and subsequent actions better reflect and participate in the perichoretic hospitality of the Word?