Words are deceptive. They are the easiest thing in the world for us to remember, as when someone promises us a handsome gift. On the other hand, they are the hardest thing in the world to forget, as when someone insults us. Likewise, it is so simple for us to say something that another will appreciate, but it is so difficult to ask pardon for a remark that offends another. Sometimes there are words we wish we had never uttered. At other times, there are words we wish we had said, while we had the chance.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Such is the boast or taunt of a young child made the object of a torrent of remarks by another, but it really cannot ease the sting left in the aftermath of spiteful remarks.
Words are potent, regardless of the ease with which they are said or remembered. A promise made by a parent to a child, to take him or her out to the park where the swings are, can easily be forgotten by a busy parent, but not so by the disappointed girl or boy. The promise of a bride and groom to take one another for better or worse till death do them part comes with ease, but there is a demanding price attached to its fulfillment. A fiery Adolph Hitler galvanized a demoralized and defeated Germany, by his eloquence in the beer halls of Bavaria, into a blitzkrieging power over-running the entirety of Europe, while the eloquence of the bull-dog-like Winston Churchill countered by silversmithing the English language of the lethargic British Isles into an irresistible force.
Do words easy come and easy go? We Christians (and Jews) have a book we call the bible. We aver that it contains the words of God, spoken over the ages. We venerate this book. The Muslims also have a book, called the Koran, which they also honor and respect, displaying violent reactions when they think others ridicule and belittle it. They too believe it contains words spoken by God to Muhammad, their venerated founder. And all of us together accept the ten commandments (the ten words) spoken by God to Moses, among which is the second commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your in vain.” This stands at the origin of an early organization in the American Catholic church: the Holy Name Society.
In these various ways we see the import of what a word means, and of what power it can exert over our lives. In our Christian tradition we have come to personify the Word of God, clarifying how God has endowed His Word with such awesome significance that it assumes personal status, looming before us as a Person, moving off the print of the bible into what is incomprehensible: God Himself. It is especially at this season of the year that we acknowledge that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. We do so by welcoming Jesus Christ, as God’s own Word, and Son, into our ranks.
And, in our Catholic (and also the Orthodox) tradition, we also venerate words in another way, that of our sacraments, wherein we call “down” God’s blessings upon us at key moments of our lives, especially at birth (baptism), worship (the Eucharistic words, “This is my body, this is the chalice of my blood”) and at our reconciliation from sin (I absolve you from your sins). Here sacramental words exert their greatest impact on the living of our lives.
Words are not to be regarded lightly, as if: easy come, easy go. They can change our lives, for better (a promise) or for worse (a lie). Words can channel our lives: the wedding vows, the ordination formula, the vows of religious. Words can break us: insults, broken oaths, with ensuing penalties, broken relationships. They can inspire us (“Go in peace, your sins are forgiven”).
Above all, they can unite us to God by prayer, words which do Him honor by recognizing His role in our lives. A worthy ambition for the New Year: to become a wordsmith in the language of God.