The Power of Words

The children’s rhyme insists that “sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Yet anyone who has comforted a teased child knows the emptiness of the adage. Words do have power. Our world is woven of words. 

We Are Not Ourselves (2014) is the multi-generational, debut novel of Matthew Thomas. It’s about Irish Americans moving from blue collar work in Woodside, Queens, to teaching and nursing in Jackson Heights, and eventually to Westchester County. If you’re unfamiliar with New York geography, that’s the arc of the suburban dream. But here’s the scene where a single word rewrites the story. 

She was more nervous than she’d been since her wedding day. Ed seemed past nerves. He radiated an odd calm, like a man about to receive a lethal injection.
They waited in the room for the doctor to come in. She held Ed’s hand, but he patted hers as if she were the one getting the news.
Dr. Khalifa entered with a folder, giving off a vaguely metallic smell and Ed bristled. The doctor walked quickly, without sufficient gravity. She thought, A turnip conveys more emotion than this guy.
“Well, I have good news and bad news,” Dr. Khalifa said. “The good news is, physically you’re healthy as a horse. A great specimen.”
She felt a jolt of excitement, then one of fear. “What about the bad news?” 
He turned to her. “The bad news is your husband likely has Alzheimer’s.”
She gasped; Ed’s hand in hers seized into a fist.
“I take no pleasure in saying this, but from now on, it might be best to think of every day as the best day of the rest of your life. If I were you, I’d try to make the most of every day while you can.
Ed squeezed her hand so hard she winced (323)

Unlike the other creatures on earth, we live in a world made of words. Words weave our dreams, express our doubts and raise our expectations. Sigmund Freud thought that the purpose of psychoanalysis was the extension of the logos, the power of the reasoning word, into the chaos of the unconsciousness. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” 

Alzheimer’s. Argument. Racist. Proposal. Pregnancy. Cancer. Words are not weak. They constantly rewrite our scripts. In Deuteronomy, God is presented as the one who lives beyond words, who cannot be contained by them. “Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die” (18: 16). And yet God enters human life, enters into communion and covenant with us, through the power of the word. 

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him (18:18).

Jesus comes among us as one who speaks. He is a teacher, a preacher. He weaves words.

All were amazed and asked one another,
“What is this?
A new teaching with authority.
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him” (Mk 1:27).

His words have power, because in him God speaks, the God who summoned the world into being by means of the Word. John’s Gospel calls Jesus, “the Word” because all-that-is comes through him, finds meaning in him, can only be claimed in him.

But we stand centuries from Capernaum. The Word isn’t driving out demons before our eyes. Or is it? It depends upon the depth of the word, how deeply it comes to inform our lives, writes our world. 

Divorce. Diagnosis. War. Termination. Arrest. Terrorist. There are so many words that terrify us, and we desperately want God to respond, to speak a word in response. And, in one word, all is answered: “Jesus.” Saint John of the Cross insisted that God has already spoken his word. “In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word—and he has no more to say.” Indeed, for Saint John, God the Father tells us, “Fasten your eyes on him alone, because in Him I have spoken and revealed all, and in Him you shall discover even more than you ask for or desire (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2, 22, 3-5).

Now we must contemplate our words in the light of his. We must allow the Word to work within our lives. If we do that, the world itself changes. We are in the position of someone who has heard a terribly powerful word, a word, which, once comprehended, alters the world itself. One might say, someone has “proposed,” offered his very self in a word. What can we say? That’s the great question. And now, God listens.

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20   1 Corinthians 7: 32-35   Mark 1: 21-28

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