Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Spirit, Matter, and the Word of God

The Word Made Flesh     

My family doesn’t attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass on a regular basis, but we go whenever we can.  One of the things that stands out for me is the fact that every Mass closes with a reading of the “Last Gospel”, which is opening of John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
     There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  This man came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him.  He was not the light, but was to give testimony of the light.   That was the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.  He was in the world, and the world was made by him,  and the world knew him not.
     He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name.  Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,  (and we saw his  glory, the  glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:1-14)

St. Jerome Visited by Angels by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi
     On those occasions when I have been granted the privilege of teaching a religion course in the High
School where I work I always start the school year with this passage because it is the best introduction to the Catholic understanding of what we might call the Sacramental Principle, our understanding that God teaches us spiritual truths through material things. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us"!  Catholic and Orthodox Christians have always understood the Embodiment in the Man Jesus Christ of the Eternal Word who existed before the creation of the universe to be a pattern that is repeated in countless lesser embodiments: the men and women whom God chooses to carry out his will, such as prophets, evangelists, and saints, not to mention his ordained clergy; his Church and its sacraments; the events of Salvation History and everyday life.  “The Heavens proclaim the Glory of God!”, says the Psalmist in Psalm 19:1.  Accordingly, things, details and events are important.  That’s why the early Church was always careful to emphasize that Jesus was a actual man who lived in specific places under certain verifiable Roman officials such as Pontius Pilate.  The details matter.

Loosening Up the Meaning

     I couldn’t help but reflect on these things as I read the Anthony Esolen article that was the subject of yesterday’s post (7 april 2014). He starts out saying:

I recently read Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae the way it was principally meant to be read: in Latin.  There’s something illuminating, I find, about reading in the original a work that is familiar to you in translation.  It becomes unfamiliar.  You can’t catch the gist of a clause unless you pay unusually close attention to the words.  You can’t dismiss something before you have quite determined what that something is.

     I had been thinking of writing about just this idea myself, because I apply the same principle in many of my posts dealing with Holy Scripture (see here and here), where looking at a word or words in the original Greek, and maybe the way it was translated into Latin just a few centuries later, is not so much a matter of “linguistic analysis” as it is simply a way of loosening up the meaning for me after the English translations have become so familiar that they have calcified, and no longer sink in.
     It’s also true that having to work through a language like Latin or Greek, where the syntax follows different principles, forces you to examine the language much more closely than if you were simply reading it in English.  Some of my students know this first hand. A few years ago I was searching through the encyclicals of John Paul II looking for some “modern Latin” for a third year Latin class.  One day I heard some of the students in the class teasing one of their classmates because he had visited a store called “Condom Sense” (yes, it is what it sounds like).  “Of course!” I thought, “Humanae Vitae!”  Which we did, in the original language.  Those students knew Pope Paul’s teaching inside and out (which is not to say that they were pleased to know it).

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

     Another problem with translations is that invariably many of the connotations and possible meanings of the original language will be lost.  This is always the case, but even more so in the latter half of the twentieth century, when an approach called “dynamic equivalence” was popular among translators, in which the translator would render what he thought the text meant, as opposed to what it actually said.  The result was “translations” that were really interpretations, with much of the concrete and vivid imagery flattened or erased, and thus the distinctness, and sense of embodiment.  Think of the recently replaced translation of the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you . . .” as opposed to “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof . . .” The so-called “dynamic” version is abstract and remote, the new more literal translation is something you can visualize, besides retaining a clear connection to the Biblical source (the Roman centurion with a sick servant in Matthew 8:8).
     So, you might be saying, "I don’t know Latin or Greek: where does that leave me?"  Well, it’s never too late to start learning, but in any case there are things you can do in reading Scripture, for instance, that can help you achieve some of the same result.  You can read the Bible with a good Catholic commentary, for instance.  It can also be helpful to compare different translations. I would advise sticking to approved Catholic translations. I would also make a point of including the Douay-Rheims version, which for a long time was the Catholic Bible in English; it is from the same era as the King James ( a few decades earlier, in fact), and makes a point of sticking much closer to the original text than has been the fashion in recent years (the passage from John's Gospel at the beginning of the post is from this translation). Working with the language in this way can help to free it from the choices of a particular translator.

They Are There For A Reason

     Here’s my final point: God speaks to us through his creation, including the words of Holy Scripture written by men under inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  The words of those Scriptures are themselves filled with all manner of vivid concrete images and events.  They are there for a reason: who are we to say that we know better than the inspired authors?  And the more tangible we can make them, the better we will understand. For instance, I have heard some people say, in praying the Our Father, "give us this day our daily strength", instead of the more literal "give us this day our daily bread."  "Strength" is certainly one of the things that the image includes, but there's so much more: all the various other ways in which God fulfills our daily needs, and specific connections such as the Manna from Heaven (which was good only for one day) and, most important, Christ the Bread of Life, present in the Eucharist. 
     We are neither soulless animals, nor disembodied angels: God has created human beings as a unique combination of matter and spirit. It is for that reason the Word Became Flesh and dwelt among us.  And for the same reason, when we see spiritual realities through the material lenses with which our creator has provided us, we see most clearly.

(An earlier version of this "Revisited" post was originally April 8th, 2014 under the title, "Scripture: Why Language is Important".  Please visit the linkup for Worth Revisiting Wednesdayhosted by Elizabeth Reardon at, and Allison Gingras at