In the beginning was the Word.
Every other day during this pandemic, I’ve phoned my mother in Exeter, taking it in turns with my brother to keep in touch with her. I guess many of you will have done the same sort of thing. When she asks what I’ve been doing all day, more often than not I reply, “shovelling words. Mother, shovelling words”. Writing is a big part of a vicar’s job at the best of times, but like many other people, my job has been even more desk-based over the last nine months. I’ve often felt like one of those old-fashioned firemen on a steam train, whose job is to pitch coal constantly into the firebox to keep the engine running, except in my case, it’s not coal but words that have been the fuel. I did a rough calculation and worked out that just the weekly newsletters and sermons during the pandemic have added up to 120,000 of them, let alone everything else that needs to be written, recorded, broadcast. Podcasts and videos, zooms, and social media posts. It’s all been about communication. And of course there’s been a lot to read too – mostly ever changing government guidance…
Words, words, words. How many words have we spoken, or heard or read today? And how many of them really mattered. Some of the words we speak are life-changing. ‘Will you marry me?’ ‘You’re hired – or fired’ ‘I’m sorry, I have bad news for you’. Words like those are never forgotten, and can’t be taken back, but often, if we’re honest, we just talk for the sake of talking.
Our readings today have lots of communication in them. In the Old Testament reading there are messengers announcing peace and sentinels lifting up their voices. Even the ruins of Jerusalem sing for joy, and in the Gospel there are angels – angel means messenger, so they are wordsmiths too, delivering their important news – and then there are shepherds bubbling over with excitement as they share what they’ve seen, probably fairly incoherently, because they don’t understand it any more than we would.
But at the centre of all this noise, all these words, there is a speechless baby, an infant. Infant literally means ‘unable to speak’ – fans is Latin for speaking, so “infans” means not speaking. He can’t even move his hands to use sign language – he’s wrapped in swaddling bands. All he can do is cry or not cry, and as every new parent knows a baby’s cry could mean a whole host of different things. And yet John’s Gospel tells us that this infant, this unspeaking one, is the Word, God’s definitive communication of himself to the world, the loudest and clearest thing God can think of to say. He has no words, this little child, but he is the Word.
When he is grown he will preach and teach, but now he has nothing to say for himself, no way of explaining himself, no way of defending himself against the oppressive rule of Rome and the murderous rage of Herod. One tenth century writer, Alan of Farfa, described Jesus as “unspeakably wise . . . wisely speechless; filling the world, he lies in a manger; guiding the stars, he nurses at his mother’s bosom; he is both great in the nature of God, and small in the form of the servant.” Later on, Jesus will be wordless again, falling into the silence of death on the cross, and lying speechless in the tomb.
I don’t think it is any accident at all that these two, silent, speechless moments at the beginning and end of his earthly life are the ones which seem to speak most profoundly to us. They are the ones which inspire the best art and music, and which seem to draw people most readily into prayer. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because birth and death are mysteries that we know can never fully be explained.
If you have ever witnessed a birth, or a death, you’ll know that it’s often very difficult to find words to describe them. Words fail us – quite rightly – at these moments when a unique human life begins or ends. Birth, and death – anyone’s birth and death - are moments to be experienced, not explained. They may be times of unspeakable joy, or unspeakable sorrow, but the fact that we often find we have no words in the face of them is a sign of how much they matter to us, not how little.
At the heart of the Christmas story there is a deep silence, a speechless child, who, like all babies, takes us as we are. We don’t need to explain ourselves to him, to make excuses, to think clever thoughts about him, any more than we do any other baby. We just need to be where he is, and know that he is where we are. What is distinctive about Jesus, though, is that it will always be like that with him. There will always be unconditional love, unconditional welcome. He will tell his followers that unless they “become like little children” they will never be able fully to see and understand and share what God is doing in the world.
The child in the manger reminds us that, in the end, it probably won’t be any of our words, yours or mine, which will make the greatest difference to others as we pick our way through the challenges and tumult of this time of crisis, however clever, or prolific those words might be. It will be the tiny, silent acts of kindness that we give and receive; the time taken to check that a neighbour has what they needed, and if they don’t, to find a way of providing it, the time taken to listen, just to listen, to someone who is feeling sad or hopeless or afraid; the little acts of creativity, like our Advent windows around the village, which spread good cheer and keep people’s spirits up. Even the everyday acts of wearing a face mask, washing your hands, giving people space, which say to others “you matter, even if I don’t know you” communicate reams without a word being spoken.
In these small acts of love, Christ is born again, and the Wordless Word speaks loud and clear. In these small acts, a small as a baby, new worlds of hope, new possibilities open up for us, and for the world, just as they did for Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men so long ago in Bethlehem.