We grow up hearing that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I was taught that saying as a child. But that’s not quite true, is it? Words can hurt.
In the past year, plenty of politicians, movie stars, and reality television characters have found that while their words may be protected by law, words can affect sales and popularity. Words can be misunderstood and they can change a reputation, or create one. Today is an appropriate day to think about words, even as we continue to meditate on the Word made flesh.
If December 29 were not a Sunday, we would be observing the feast day for Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered on December 29, 1170. Thomas was the quintessential diplomat and served as King Henry II’s chancellor and in several other posts before being appointed archbishop. The king had hoped Thomas would continue to serve the crown, first and foremost. But as archbishop, Becket began to understand his primary allegiance as being to God and the Church. Tensions between Thomas and King Henry II brewed, and in 1170, the king supposedly complained about Thomas and others, saying something along the lines of “What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest.”
These words by the king were then interpreted by the king’s men as a desire to have Thomas killed. Whether these were the exact words, or there were others, a poorly chosen word, or a word misheard basically killed Thomas Becket.
Words can and do hurt. A little girl thinks she is ugly, does so only because someone has called her ugly. A little boy thinks he’s dumb, not because he is, but because someone has called him dumb. Words shape us. If we were to look back over our lives, I’m sure we could recall times when a word has stuck us as a weapon almost, and it has hurt. Perhaps just as painfully, in a spirit of confession, I bet most of us could recall a time when we’ve used words as weapons and hurt others. Words can hurt, but words just as surely can heal. A well-chosen and well-placed word can offer encouragement, hope and life.
It is no coincidence that our Biblical account of creation happens by a word. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. God said, Let there be this, and let there be that, and after each thing was created, God spoke a single word again: “Good,” God said, “It’s all very, very good.” The Word was busy, shaping and making and proclaiming and blessing.
The Gospel of John picks up on this power of a word to create. “In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….And the Word became flesh.”
When John speaks of the “Word,” the Greek term he uses is Logos, and Logos meant more than just a word, more even than all words put together. Way back in Greek philosophy, in the 3rd century BC, Heraclitus said that the Logos “governs all things.” And yet, the Logos is also present in the everyday. Later, the Stoics took up the idea of the Logos and used it to mean the principle that orders the universe. So when John uses Logos, or Word, he’s using a term that would have worked as a kind of hyperlink, culturally. To say that the Word was with God and the Word was God, and then to say that this Word, this ordering principle of the universe is completely summed up in Jesus of Nazareth, John was pulling together a lot of different ways of understanding the world.
He was describing in his context, what it meant for God to be born in the world. John used a word to bring together different worlds. While Jesus was born once in the event we celebrate at Christmas, he is also born again and again in our own lives and in our world wherever we make his love known. One way we can bring Christ into our world in through our words.
Just as we know words can hurt, so, through the love of Christ, our words can take on additional power to heal, to love, and to lift up. Guided by the Holy Spirit, our words can do much more than simply offer kindness, though in our world, that is no small thing. But even more, informed and influenced by the Spirit, our words can offer life and love to those who may have forgotten how such words even sound.
As we look toward a new year, I wonder if we could pay more attention to our words? I’m going to try. I’m going to be praying that my words might help and heal rather than criticize or tear down. I invite you also to think about your words, pray about your words, and may God guide us all to speak truth, to speak for justice and to speak in love.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in sight of the Lord, our strength and our redeemer. (Psalm 19).
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.