The Power of Words

The Power of Words

The Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi). Fr Euan Marley preaches for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which in Scotland is transferred to Sunday, 22 June.

When the Pope came to Britain, one of the broadsheet papers had a rather unkind cartoon, depicting the Pope speaking to a vast crowd, but with the word balloon full of the word, ‘Words’, over and over again. More than twenty years later, the same paper praised the Pope for his role in the recent Polish referendum which led to their accepting membership of the European Union.

What was interesting was that the editorial emphasised the power of his phrase ‘historic justice’ in swinging the people round, a phrase described by the editorial as ‘telling’. The Pope spoke and history changed.

Words are powerful, more powerful than any apparent concrete power. Our ability to speak, when we do speak and don’t merely babble, is what connects us to the divine, makes us more than other animals, makes us in fact Godlike.

This capacity reaches its heights in Our Lord Jesus, whose speech shows his transcendence over all things, material and immaterial. He silences the demons and the roaring sea with the same power in his words.

As we approach the time of his offering to the Father, he demonstrates that this power is over all human affairs. The exact description of what will happen, the man carrying the water jar, and how the disciples will find the upper room, is fulfilled exactly, not so much because Jesus predicts it but because his words cause it to happen. It is quite wrong to think that these events unfold because Jesus has made arrangements this way.

As well as saying what will happen, Jesus also tells the disciples what to say. Their words are determined by Christ and so they carry the power of Christ. The disciples are able to take the colt for the procession into Jerusalem and to find a room for the Last Supper because they are speaking as they have been told.

This is exactly what the Church does in the sacraments, speaking words in accordance with the tradition which carry the power of Christ. We say ‘I baptise’, ‘I absolve you’, ‘This is my Body’, and the power of God is carried into the world.

This power is in the truth. God cannot deny his own self and so his words cannot but be true. How can we know that the bread and wine are truly the Body and Blood of Christ? Because he said that they were, and we accept it.

A misunderstanding of this crept in around the time of the Reformation, where John 6:63 –

It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life –

was taken to mean that the words of the Eucharist could be true without any material change. This is a grave misunderstanding of the nature of God’s speech.

This speech is always creative, whatever God says. It is not said just because it is true, but rather it is true because God says it. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. Jesus said, ‘This is my body,’ and it is his body.

This is why a great deal of the Church’s work is to engage in true speech. It can be the formal speech of the sacraments which transforms humanity, or the special moments of true speech which are personal to us. This personal speech is heard memorably in the Gospel of Mark, with the Syrophoenician woman who says,

Even the little dogs under the tables can eat from the children’s crumbs,

and is praised for this word.

In speaking true words, we echo the words of God, which is to say, we share in his creation. This is why we needn’t be afraid to admit that the feast of Corpus Christi is a matter of words.

Words are greater than material things, even the material Body of Christ, and the feast shows this. So to the words, ‘The Body of Christ,’ we answer, ‘AMEN’.

Readings: Exo 24:3-8 | Heb 9:11-15 | Mark 14:12-16,22-26

fr. Euan Marley O.P. is Prior at Blackfriars, Cambridge.