Seeing and Saying
Seeing and Saying

Seeing and Saying

Third Sunday of Advent. Fr Euan Marley considers the relationship between vision and speech.

Seeing and speaking may seem quite different actions, but not for God. In the book of Genesis, God says ‘let there be light’. Then he saw that the light was good. Many have discussed whom God is addressing in his speech, but the Trinity is an eternal speech, the speaking of the eternal and perfect Word of God in the breath of the Holy Spirit, the Father expressing his whole being in the Son. The creation is the extension of that speech, allowing others to exist who can hear that word. God sees by his word. He is not looking at his creation as we look , when he saw that it was good. His word cannot fail, so he sees what he has made by the certainty of the power of his word, and an this way, he sees that it is good.

It is different for us. For human beings vision is a capacity we have, but it is limited. We do not see all that we might see. So human speech has a role in our vision. Today’s Gospel is about the interplay of vision and speech: ‘announce to John what you hear and see’. So Our Lord is asking them to speak, but to speak of what they hear and see. Speech helps us to see. So Our Lord both teaches John and his disciples how to see further, but then he addresses the crowd who are listening to this dialogue. ‘What did you go out into the desert to see?’

Seeing is no simple matter. We don’t always see what is to be seen. We don’t always understand what we see, to the point where we don’t see it at all. Good and clear vision requires good and clear speech. Unlike God, not everything we say is true. It is not just through lies but even at our most sincere, we fail to say what there is to be seen. Our speech is faltering, limited and never quite done. Our speech has to be constantly re-assembled so that we can truly see. Speech too enables us to see beyond the limits of our horizons. So John the Baptist must be told by others as to what they hear and see, and he too in hearing begins to see properly what is happening.

The life of the Church involves so much speaking. In homilies, in prayers, in the fixed rites of our liturgy, in the words which are always a part of every sacrament that we are to perform. We speak to each other and by this we offer something of the grace we have received from God to each other. This is why the great list of miracles which are occurring all around Christ, ends with what seems like a rather banal statement. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the dead are raised. Then what? The poor are given the good news. Why does the tone drop so dramatically? The answer is that unless the poor receive the Gospel, then all the miracles of Christ will not be seen as they are to be seen. The miracles are not the point. Rather the miracles do the pointing, since they point to Christ, who is indeed the one who is to come. The poor are the ones who receive this truth, and do not take offence with the Christ. Far from a drop in the tone, this is the climax of Christ’s proclamation of the signs of the kingdom.

Though we do not speak as God speaks, since our speech does not bring anything into being, the fact that we can speak at all shows that we are made in the image of God. We shape the world that God has given us by our speech, and we make it ours, so that it becomes part of us. So Adam named the animals but he truly speaks when he discovers Eve, whom he proclaims as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. It is in speaking that he sees who she truly is. All speech then is a sort of creation, because all speech has the ultimate purpose of proclaiming that the creation is good.

Yet the limits of our ability to say what needs to be said, means that we will never truly speak the truth of our being and the being of all good things that God has made while we live on earth. This might be why the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist. The heavenly speech has not yet begun: the speech of praise when we see God face to face.

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-6,10 | Isaiah 35:1-6,10 | Matthew 11:2-11

Image: Mosaic by Boris Anrep from the Blessed Sacrament chapel of Westminster Cathedral, London, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP

fr. Euan Marley O.P. lives and works at Blackfriars, Cambridge.

Comments (8)

  • Sarah

    Just something i have been wondering about for a while and wondered if anyone here had any thoughts: is it a sin to say something that is not true if it is intended as a joke? So say for example you were to say “I am so hungry i could eat a horse”. Everyone listening would know that this is not true and the intent is humor and social bonding not to deceive. Does that make it ok or should we avoid even silly untruths? Any thoughts gratefully accepted.

    • Peter Hunter OP

      To lie, you have to intend to deceive. Since you not only do not intend to deceive in the kind of joke you mention, as you yourself say, no one would be actually deceived.

  • J Butler

    I wouldn’t get tangled up in worry over the literal meaning of a phrase such as: ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’. However, it’s important to know that you and the person you’re speaking to are on the same page, idiomaticaly. I have a friend who’s from Lithuania. Her English is good, but she’s not familiar with our idioms. Once, she told me how her husband was going to a major used car auction with a group of colleagues. So, I replied, he’s going on a road trip with his little friends. No, she replied, they are all grown men.
    Then I remembered how I always had to speak literally to my grandparents as they didn’t understand idioms also.

  • Alejandro Clausse

    Sarah’s example is a metaphor, which is a type of analogy. A metaphor is ordinarily false literally, but it is true metaphorically. “No man is an island” is a classic example. They are not sins: Jesus uses them at length. Even more, we cannot speak about God but through analogies. Analogy is to theology what mathematics is to physics. Actually, I think a central theme this homily points to is how metaphors open our mind to “see” new aspects or perspectives of things (in the sense of realizing). It always surprises me how a simple metaphor can change completely the way one sees a problem.

  • Daniel


    Metaphors, parables, fairytales, jokes, fables, theatre plays etc. are not lies, and thus not sinful. The truthfulness of a statement is not defined by literal factualness, otherwise Jesus’ parables would be lies, and of course he who is Truth cannot lie.

    You do not deceive but simply express truth in an engaging way when you share your equine appetites.

  • Catherine

    Sarah, I believe that God has a sense of humour. He sent Peter to catch a fish. He told Peter that he would find inside the fish a coin to pay his and Jesus’s taxes! Isn’t that playful and even funny! At least, that’s how I see it. I think we must trust God to understand our best intentions.

  • Sarah

    Oh thank you! That is all very helpful.

    • Maurice

      Re the comment of Peter Hunter OP, does this mean that the Jesuits were lying when practicing verbal equivocation?


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