Let God touch your heart this Christmas
I have been reading St Augustine’s tractate on the Prologue to St John’s Gospel. The great rhetorician ponders at length the meaning that words and the Word convey to human senses. He considers this first from the sense of hearing.
We use a lot of words in everyday life, and as a result we often devalue their currency. Human words sound and pass away. You can read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and something stirs within, even though you don’t really know what the words mean. Is this Word of the same quality, something which sounds, but fades, which bears meaning only for a moment? It cannot be, he says, since it was “with God in the beginning, and through it all things came to be”. So when my heart hears the “Word was God” it exerts a particular effect on it, unlike any other word. “God’s word sounds, passes away, but what the sound signified and what was in the mind of the one uttering it and was received by the hearer – all this remains once the sound has passed away.”
What Augustine is saying is that God’s self-communication, God’s ability to be understood by the human heart, took flesh and became intelligible in the way that a word does. Yet there is a gap between the utterance of a word and it being received and understood, so the mere fact of being uttered is not enough. How beautiful, and one might say how risky, is the fact of the Word taking flesh. Like a lover, daring to speak his love, he invites a response but risks being misunderstood. In Jesus, God asks his people to hear and receive. Yet we know “he came to his own people, and his own people received him not”.
The self-communication of God is more involved and subtle than the mere utterance of a word or even the concrete fact of having a body. Augustine says: “The wisdom of God cannot be beheld by the eyes. If the word of man cannot be seen with the eyes, can the Word of God be so seen?” Augustine considers whether the Word taking flesh is like a word being written down. You can see the written word, but not a word being uttered – they are two different things. One has only to think, for example, of the different emphases one can give to the words “no” to change its meaning. So Augustine asks himself what does it mean that the Word became flesh. He points out that, like the difference between the written word and its comprehension, you can see the baby in the manger, or the man on the Cross, but that doesn’t mean you are seeing the Word who is God. The true meaning of this revelation was hidden to the Pharisees and the chief priests, for example.
So, as in Isaiah’s prophecy, one may gaze and gaze on the Crib, on the Incarnate God, and not see, one can hear and not understand. Something has to happen in my heart so that I can grasp not just the sound, but the meaning, so that the Word will take flesh in me.
In the baby in the manger we “see” our God made visible, but this is in order that we are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see; we go beyond our senses. How are we caught up? By faith, which is a special kind of seeing. And Augustine is quite clear that the heart is the organ by which we hear and see God’s self-communication. It is the effect on our hearts which allows us to understand, and this is the result not of perception, but of grace – “the power to become children of God, born of God himself”.
God’s self-communication is grace, not just something conceptual. It is something which touches our deepest heart and can only be understood through being accepted. It is God’s grace which allows me to understand that he communicates his very self to me, which is why we receive grace in return for grace, explains Augustine. I cannot make meaning out of God’s self-communication, since it is God who comes. To the extent that he comes, I can understand who he is and my part is to welcome him by faith. “Faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of faith is to see what we believe.” Faith is the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness cannot overpower. A new birth, not from the nature, from the urge of the flesh or the will of man, but from God himself, the rebirth of grace, is what allows us to accept him and become children of God.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London