JUNE 2, 2005- HOMILY: Tobit 12:5-20; Mark 12:38- 44

'It is right to keep the secret of a king, yet it is right too to reveal in a worthy way and publish the words of God.’ . An interesting feature of this text is that it occurs twice in this chapter of Tobit but with a a variation. I have cited the second occurrence where we read: ‘It is ... right to reveal in a worthy way the words of God’. The variant I refer to is the noun ‘word’ for in the first statement, we read: ‘It is ... right to reveal and publish the works of God as they deserve.’ The translation I use here is the popular one in The Bible of Jerusalem which is a rendering of the Greek text, which is already a translation of the original semitic. Now in both Hebrew and Aramaic the word ‘davar’ means both word and deed or work. Only the context indicates the appropriate way to render it for modern readers. No matter which choice is made, however, there is something lost in the translation.

For in the mind of the original author, ‘davar’is a concrete reality that partakes at once of the concrete nature of a deed and the signification conveyed by a word. A striking instance of this usage is found in the infancy account of the Gospel of Luke. Afer the shepherds receive the vision of angels announcing the birth of the Savior, they say to one another: "Let us go to Bethlehem to see this word" (rema, in the Greek). One does not speak like that, and so The Bible of Jerusalem translates "see this event". This is good English, but not quite what the original states: the birth of Jesus is not only an event: it is a word spoken by God whose significance is revealed by angels, messengers, that is, sent expressly by the Lord of Heavenly Hosts. The general sense is the same in English, but the tone is lost and what suggests an living reality loses the color that makes it live. Life is in the color, the resonance and nuances that distinguish persons and their doings. Above all, when we read of the events and sayings of the revealed text, we do well to advert to the fact that God alone so fully , yet subtly in a hidden manner, controls historical events in his Providence that they convey his meanings. The happenings of history, acccordingly, are so many words, bearing messages of significance for the realization of his divine plan.

Davar, in short, is a palmary instance of a concept that cannot be adequately translated into another language; its native associations are such as to bind it to a distinctive manner of perceiving and consequently of understanding an event. A word is a deed; a deed expresses an unuttered word. For Jesus and his contemporary Jewish audience a ‘davar’ has a concreteness, a density of reality that distinguishes it from what we think of when we say ‘word’..

Is it worth our dwelling on what might seem a rather minor matter that gives scholars material with which to exercise their wits? I believe it is. Words are so fundamental in human experience and in human relations that any light we get on their significance and function contributes to our understanding of human nature, and so of our own self and our manner of functioning. Words commonly are given but scant importance in everyday speech. We do not give sufficient care to how we use words, nor to what words we admit into our minds and hearts by our reading and listening. All too readily we consume words with avidity but fail to process them so that they contribute to the quality of our inner life and so render us more apt in employing words that more effectively express a reality at once divine and human with the freshness and color of life.

In order more fully to possess our own experiences and thereby enhance our consciousness and enlarge our mental horizons we do well to exert our self to fit the proper words as precisely to experience and to concepts as we can manage. Only by attention to the precise meaning of words can we apprehend with enhanced awareness the latent content of those experiences that stand behind the words we speak. There are word that have an evocative power that makes the latent meaning of events and even at times the unexpressed thoughts in our own hearts as well as those of persons we encounter accessible to our perception. Karl Rahner appreciated this latent force embedded in certain words. He comments in the following terms.

Words distinguish. But the ultimate words which call to the all-pervading mystery and reach the heart, are words that unite. They call to the origin and gather into the unifying center of the heart. Hence they reconcile, they free the individual from the isolation of loneliness, they make the whole present in each one; they speak of one death and we taste the death of all, they tell of one man and we have learned to know all men.’[They speak of a] "love which is not a feeling but the true substance of all reality as it strives to manifest itself in all things."(‘Poetry and the Christian’, Theological Investigations 4, 357 360-1)

Centuries before Rahner wrote these thoughts St Augustine had spoken perceptively in a similar vein of the fact that even with our best efforts our words will always fall short of transcendent realities that are lodged in the deepest regions of our being. In a letter to a Roman widow intent on a life of prayer he wrote that: "we have in us then something we might call learned ignorance, ignorance we have learned from the Spirit of God who helps our weakness.... How are we to put in words what we do not know even when we are longing for it? Surely if we did not know it at all we would not be longing for it and seeking it with sighs. (Ep 120 to Proba)."

May the Word of God whom we receive in this Eucharist reveal to each of us something of the mystery of his love and the power of his resurrection by the gift of his Spirit. That Spirit who lives and prays within us in unutterable words that surpass our understanding whose meaning is summed up in the one word, ‘Abba’, ‘Father’.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

Return to Index.

Go to Archive.