Sunday, 8 December 2019

Prepare the Way

"This was the man spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said: A voice of one that cries in the desert, 'Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.'" Matthew, 3 - Bíblia Católica Online

Solstice sunrise over Cranfield airfield

Words are powerful things, but slippery. They're ambiguous, imprecise, can carry multiple meanings. Which is why it takes a certain kind of brain to be a computer programmer. If you're the sort of person that says, "but that's not what I meant to say", who likes to use language that is powerful but ambiguous, which if taken the "wrong" way, can do terrible harm - try not to be a programmer. Go for Prime Minister instead. If you're wanting to be a politician you can say all sorts of things which can mean terrible stuff, but claim that all along you were quoted out of context, or meant something different. If you're a computer programmer your language means just what it says - regardless of what you meant. Computers aren't impressed that you went to Eton, or spend your spare time at the allotment. And if you've ever had to deal with a whole evening of Burton Dasset telling you about the time he spent a month looking for a full stop in the wrong place in a Cobol program in an accounts payable package, you'll know exactly what I mean.

But real human language - as opposed to that used by programmers - isn't like that. It's nuanced, it lives in context. It has a background, a genre, a sub-text. You have to know what you're dealing with. As Paul Merton said about reading the telephone directory (and I'm glad I can count on half my readership knowing what a telephone directory is,  still): the plot's terrible. But the people - they seem so real! Which is why reading human language - especially something as multi-layered as the Bible - is not something we should do like we're computers, following the apparently obvious instructions in front of us.

All of which thoughts, in reference to the Bible passage above, come out of the most controversial tweet of the week in Christian Twitter, from Miranda Threlfall-Jones. Asked to give her most controversial liturgical opinion she tweeted:
I mean, obviously she's right. It was controversial. And she's right that we need to stop and think about what we're doing with these words. There's good reasons we can't just use them without reflecting what the words mean in our language - and what they're trying to grasp for. But she got a lot of abuse and was accused, among other things, of heresy and idolizing feminism. But let's look at the word "Lord", for Jesus or God.

"Lord" in the Bible is an interesting word. Or words. The Greek word is Kurios. Which in Greek can equate to the English words "lord", "master" or even, in the sort of phrase Alf Garnett would have used, "head of the household". The English word of course means "male member of the nobility", and is only used in this context by people who don't actually live on the Woburn or Althorp estates by people referring to the House of Lords. A chamber of government populated in England by some people we didn't vote for, many of whom are actually experts in their fields, but some of  whom are simply the friends of current or former Prime Ministers.

So far so obvious. It appears that Matthew is telling us that the Lord of the Manor is coming back to pay a visit. And that's certainly a reasonable analogy. One Jesus does use himself. Consider Jesus's parable about the ruler going away on a long journey.

Albeit worth remembering that, in days gone by in Great Brington and surrounding villages, it was Raine Spencer who is remembered as having wielded the real power in the Althorp estate. But is it problematic, the idea of Jesus as a ruler who will come back, put things to right and deal dreadfully with his enemies? I guess it depends who you think God's enemies are. If you're the american or English middle class, sitting comfortably, you're going to be thinking God will be dealing with those who don't behave in your particular way. People who put their milk in the tea first, or call their kids after favourite lager brand or something. If you're the First Century Church, running into hiding places as the other one who calls himself "Lord", who has power over life and death in the here and now hunts you down and demands you swear allegiance - you might have a different idea of how God's Lordship will sort things out. The Book of Revelation sounds terrifying unless you're on the bottom of the pile.

The early Church took the term "Lord" and applied it,  not to Herod - the kingling whose power ultimately depended totally on Caesar - not to Caesar, whose power he claimed came from God but who so often actually derived power from a fragile truce with his own army. The Church gave the term to a refugee baby, to a crucified man. Against the power base of the Roman Empire, the Church said real lordship lies with the homeless and dispossessed.

But - and this is why the Bible is many-layered - that's the Greek word we use for "Lord". John the Baptist almost certainly wasn't speaking Greek out in the desert. And the phrase that Matthew quotes from Isaiah definitely wasn't written in Greek. It was in Hebrew. And there are a number of Hebrew words that you can translate as "lord".

"Baal", for instance. Which is normally left untranslated in English translations. Because it became the name of a god of the tribes the Israelites fought against. And it would be confusing to translate as "the lord", particularly when Elijah's in that miracle fight with the prophets of Baal.   Then the Hebrew word "adonai" - meaning "sir" or "my lord" - as you might refer to the boss or the squire. And that's used about God as well, and Jewish people would say it when referring to God rather than use the holy name of God - which is the word that Isaiah actually does use - the one Bible scholars write as YHWH, and the New Jerusalem transcribes as Yahweh, and the Jehovah's Witnesses write as Jehovah and claim is God's real name though it's not because we don't know what the vowels should be.

But that other word we translate as "The Lord" (with little caps in many Bibles) isn't about land ownership or feudalism or who's the boss in the same way. It's more about God as being - it's a derivative of the verb "to be". It's why God can be referred to as the "I am". Why when Jesus says, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58), he nearly suffers a stoning. John the Baptist isn't paving the way for a super-charged land-owner. John is anticipating that the very one who writes the words of the world's story is going to be turning up.

This is way beyond emperors, Pharaohs, kings and squires. This is the eternity of God in the space of one - short - human life. This is the one through whom and for whom everything was made, turning up on site.

And that concept is really hard to grasp - which is why I struggle to put things into human words, with my severely limited human imagination, even with this wonderfully flexible and powerful and slippery thing, the English language - which is why we are limited down to words like "king" and "lord". And "shepherd" and "servant" and "father", "mother hen", "creator" and "saviour".   Each one is a word that tells a facet of God, each an image - and we know what happens when we take an image and make it represent the whole of God.

That first Advent is when the architect and builder of the universe becomes part of the building materials, made up of the stuff that God first made, subject to its physical limitations - but also of infinite love and creativity. In a world of petty kings and short-lived emperors, God is revealed as the child of a beaten-down nation, a refugee, a prisoner and a condemned criminal.

We remember his coming, at this darkest time of year in our Northern latitudes, as the spark of hope in despair, the first glint of light in the darkness. And prepare for when Jesus comes again - and the broken-down, yet so beautiful world we inhabit is caught up forever into the wonder of the God who came down so far for us.

Want to support this blog? Want a good laugh? (or to shudder at death at any rate? Then here's two ways you can keep the Archdruid in doilies...
If you want someone to share the terrors of death while making you laugh, we have "A Hint of Death in the Morning Air" - 97 poems to make you wonder, laugh or shake your head sadly. At only £1 on Kindle. Or if you want to know what the people in the pews really think, and you prefer your words printed on paper, why not try "Writes of the Church"?  The letters to the Church magazine the vicar really didn't need.

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