Words about The Word
Third Sunday of Advent | Fr Robert Eccles ponders on the grace of preaching and the power of words.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…
The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring forth before all the nations.
Is there a poet or two on your bookshelf? Here at Cambridge in the novitiate house, our new brothers have found enjoyment in reading poetry to one another in the evenings. As they should, seeing how their business is to be words, words on account of the Word. Would-be friars preachers must have a care for words and for the beauty and authority of words, for that is our duty and our delight. Dominican sisters and brothers must study words and turns of phrase, they must consider images and rhythm in case they should say what they neither mean nor wish to say. It is a matter of finding the right word, as the poet says,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
the complete consort dancing together.
– T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets
The preacher’s words are his dance before the Lord. And the poet and preacher of the Advent season is the prophet Isaiah. Though the book we know as Isaiah, mind, is more an anthology of prose and verse than the work of a single hand. The Isaiah of today’s poem praises the God in whose gift is the garment of salvation (irresistibly, the image reminds us of a mother wrapping her child up warm against the winter chill). It is this poet also who sees how the God of the Jews rescues the Gentiles too from the shadows of ignorance and unbelief,
The glory of the Lord will be seen upon you,
and nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
The only one who can legitimately fulfil this oracle is the Messiah himself. He alone is in himself and to the exclusion of all others, good news and true light and life for the world, and his witness is one who is not the Christ, not Elijah, not the prophet of doom – not, not, not, for the sake of the One who Is. Because as John’s gospel would have it, the Baptist is supremely the Witness, the one who is transparently truthful and whose word just has to be trusted.
A well-loved film about an ordinary family is called “Secrets & Lies” (directed by Mike Leigh, 1996). It hinges on the fact that we find it so difficult to tell the truth to one another, even to our nearest and dearest (perhaps especially to our nearest and dearest!) But not only in the family, we have to cope with fake news and flaky information. Where is my own country heading now, post-Brexit? What does the future hold? The direction national affairs is taking appears quite mysterious, even to those in charge of negotiations, seemingly. In world affairs too, the air is full of large threats and empty promises. I can’t presume to think your thoughts, dear reader, or read what is in the bubble above your head! But we had to give a name to the times, perhaps we could call this the Doubtful Age. The one thing certain is that certainty is in short supply.
Advent is surely the time for Isaiah and the Baptist to be heard inviting us to love the truth of things, to stand in the truth, and know that certainty which Christ alone can give. ‘Test everything, hold fast to what is good’ writes St Paul to the Thessalonians (second reading). We need to recognise the true prophets and the authentic messengers on whom the Spirit rests. We need to refine our skills in discernment. We should put a distance between ourselves and all that smells of secrets, lies and persiflage in the common currency of politics, certainly. Put simply, we must be impatient to get at the truth of things, the truth of our fellow men and women in their aspirations and their sufferings, the certainty of the divine plan for the world through Israel and its Messiah. This is how we ready ourselves to meet and to welcome the Lord.
Mosaic of St John the Baptist from the west facade of the Rosary Basilica in Lourdes.