Spelling the Word

We are in the season of gift-giving. But during Christmas we must also be able to receive those gifts given to us. And receiving that gift, celebrating it, using it – can be just as challenging if not more so than giving.

The question throughout Advent – the four weeks of preparation before Christmas – challenged us to watch and wait, to let go and forgive, to shed those distractions of our lives, to give of ourselves for the sake of others. These were the disciplines of Advent.

But now the gift of Christ is given to us. The Gospel states that the light of the world has come; the light has shone in the darkness, a light no darkness can overcome. This is the gift of God, the life of Jesus, to the world (John 1:3-5)

How shall we receive this most precious gift? And how does this gift make a positive difference in our lives shrouded in darkness?

The answer may lie in how well you can spell. How’s your spelling? I learned how to spell by doing reps; I had to practice spelling a word. I also learned how to spell by getting beyond the disappointment of the mistakes, mistakes which were bound to happen no matter how good I was at spelling.

The famous artist, Rembrandt (1606-1669), painted the “Holy Family” in the 17th century. In the painting, he portrays the nativity as if it were an event taking place in 17th century Holland. The attire and furnishings are what one would find in a typical Dutch home from Rembrandt’s own day.

In addition to Joseph standing and an angel hovering in the background, Mary is seated at the centre of the painting with an opened, well-thumbed book, presumably the Bible, held open by her left hand. Her right hand, on the top of a rocking cradle, has pulled aside a covering to reveal a soundly sleeping Jesus. Mary’s head is turned from the book to gaze upon the infant.

Whether or not Rembrandt intended it, the painting represents different ways to encounter and understand the ‘word of God’:

On the one hand, there are the Scriptures, the book that Mary has been reading as Jesus sleeps and Joseph works in the background. The Word of God is to be found in the Bible. We read the words and find we are addressed by the Word of God. We read them again and again – like learning how to spell. That is why the book is well-thumbed. Rembrandt pictures Mary as one who knows well the word of God and who ponders it in her heart.

But she does not ponder the page alone. She also ponders the infant beside her, “the Word made flesh”, rather than the Word made paper and ink. The Word is a blood-warmed, breath-enlivened human sleeping beside his mother.

I have the impression looking at this painting that when Mary returns to her reading, she will understand what she reads at a greater depth because she has encountered the Word through the Word made flesh. At the same time, when she tends to the child, she will understand the child at a greater depth because she has encountered the Word through the words in the book. Back and forth between Word made flesh and Word through words is the pattern suggested by Rembrandt’s painting.

This is how we learn to ‘spell’ our baptism in Christ — learning not only the words in the Bible, but more importantly for us Christians living in the 21st century, learning to know the living Christ in our hearts and in others and in the world today. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).

How do we live Christ in the world today? How do we tend to the Christ child in our midst?

Let the light be seen! Let the good gift of Christ within us shine forth anew, for the world to see! Those words are spoken at every baptism to the baptized: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven!” (Matthew 5:16). The light wasn’t meant to be hidden under a bushel, but put on a lampstand (Matthew 5:15)!

You hold the light of Christ in your heart. There is no justification to hide it. There is some good there that the world so desperately needs. And you have it!

A royal priesthood we are! A holy nation! God’s own people! In order that we might proclaim Christ (1Peter 2:9). Martin Luther argued for the ‘priesthood of believers’. In other words, we all receive the grace of God for ministry, not just the religious professionals. That is why the baptized receives a crown – we are all now princes and princesses in the kingdom of God.

How do we live out our priesthood?

Another artist, perhaps not as well known, lived during the same time as Rembrandt. George Herbert’s life (1593-1633) overlapped with Rembrandt’s. Although the poet and painter may never have met or even known of each other’s work, I find it interesting to consider Rembrandt’s “Holy Family” in light of some lines from Herbert’s poem that resonate with the first chapter of John’s Gospel: “We say amiss, this or that is; Thy word is all, if we could spell.”

How do we ‘spell’ the Word of God? Listen to a portion of a poem written by Thomas Troeger (in Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 1, WJK Press, Louisville, 2010, p.189-193):

“How do you spell the word? /Where do you search and look – /Amidst the chaos and cries you’ve heard /Or in a well-thumbed book? /Hold back the swift reply, /The pious, worn cliché … /Instead, let all you do /Embody truth and grace, /And you will spell the word anew /In every time and every place.”

I must admit I had to practice a few times spelling ‘Kirubakaran’ before getting it right. Every name has meaning – this is also something we learn from the Christmas story: starting with the name of the newborn Messiah, Jesus – Immanuel, God is with us – the salvation of the world (Matthew 1:18/Isaiah 7:14). I was pleased when you told me that the name Roselyn takes, in your native language, means literally – “Christ who gives mercy.”

Today, as Rose is baptized, she receives the great gift of Christ in her life. May she grow to know, and live out, this mercy, forgiveness and grace.

May we all spell the word anew in every time and every place.

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About raspberryman

I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, serving a parish in Ottawa Ontario. I am a husband, father, and admirer of the Ottawa Valley. I enjoy beaches, sunsets and waterways. I like to write, reflect theologically and meditate in the Christian tradition.
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1 Response to Spelling the Word

  1. Hi, Martin, and thank you for this lovely post. George Herbert – thanks for mentioning this Anglican priest and poet and one of my favourites. The Templehas works I return to again and again, describing beautifully what it means to be loved by God, and to serve God.

    Jessica’s birthday coming soon – do you have any gift ideas for us?

    We’re heading to Southern Ontario tomorrow for a few days, and I might do some gift shopping. ‘Tis the season! Blessings, Margo

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