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 for good and for ill. Our world is woven of words. A single word can make life turn on a dime.
My mother was born into a pioneer family that along with Brigham Young settled Utah. Fearless and independent, she carried that spirit into the world. At the age of 19 when her country called, she moved from Paradise Utah to Washington DC to work in the War Department at the outbreak of World War II. At 24 she married a young Army captain and settled in Atlanta among his kin folk, far from the world of her youth. A mom at 26, a grandmother at 46, a widow at 48, and then again entering the workforce. She remarried at 56, lived in Paris for three years, traveled the world but was again widowed at 63…and took up golf, became club champion, continued to travel, volunteer, and dote on her growing and grown grandchildren. Became a great-grandmother at 71 and was the belle of the Friday dances at the clubhouse. She decided the rest of the world needed to be seen. At 76 China, Japan, and the countries of the Far East were added to her passport. In her 80s, golf, dancing and grands and great-grands were her avocation. At 89 a single word rewrote her life: “Alzheimer’s.” At 92 her son took several sheets of paper, taping them end-to-end, creating a timeline so she could remember the story of the life she had written. And for a moment she remembered all the words.
Unlike the other creatures on earth, we live in a world made of words. Words weave our dreams, express our doubts, raise our expectations, and define our hopes for a future. Ludwig Wittgenstein insightfully wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” We choose the words by which we live, and so set the horizons of this life. Choose carefully. For words are not weak. They’ve the power to constantly rewrite our lives, our horizons.
And we are a people called to look beyond those horizons to encounter the Living Word. The One who is the horizon, who is life. Whose words come into our world, powerful, commanding and demanding. So powerful that the people Israel cry out “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 is relentless and enters human life, enters into communion and covenant with us, through the power of the word – words of hope and promise of rescue and salvation.
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).
In that passage from today’s reading in Deuteronomy, and so many other passages of the Old Testament come words of promise fulfilled in Jesus. No longer living beyond our horizons but living among us. Living as a weaver of powerful 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).
The world was summoned into existence by the Word. And now the Word lives among us, summosing us to live in the Kingdom. To speak the words already spoken to us. Words that are an antidote to the words that frighten us. Words that offer healing, hope, faith, and above all love.
There is a part of me that wants to go back and be present among the Apostles in Capernaum. To hear, first-hand, the power of his words. But we stand centuries from Capernaum. The Word isn’t driving out demons before our eyes – but then would we notice? It depends upon how we have let the Word inform and rewrite our lives.
When my mom reached 72, her favorite son, let the Word rewrite his life. He moved to the other side of her world to live among the poor in mission. When she reached 84, she attended his ordination. At age 93, her family gathered to celebrate her life and her passing. It was a day spent in telling the stories she had written. Words that delighted her great grandchildren. Words her grandchildren heard for the first time. Words her children remembered and smiled in the hearing.
But we also live in a world when there are so many words that terrify us. Old words like terrorist. New words like covid. And we desperately want God to respond, to speak a word in response, to rewrite this world we live. We pray that God speak that all powerful word into the world. That prayer is already answered in one word: “Jesus.” We gather to hear the story of Jesus told in the gospels.
Saint John of the Cross understood the power of the gospel’s words. He wrote: “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…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).
The Gospels and all of Scripture are sheets of paper, taped end-to-end, creating a timeline of life, love, memory yet they come commanding, demanding, and powerful. Those words call us to this Eucharist because we have heard the single powerful word: Jesus – the one in whom all is revealed, in whom we can discover more than we could imagine or desire. Those words demand a response. What will be our response to that Word? What could we possible say in reply?
Say, “Amen.” And then write and rewrite the story of your life so that “sticks and stones” no longer matter. In one word, discover more than you could ask or desire. Speak and live that Word into the waiting world. Write stories of powerful words: Hope, Faith and Love. Write them for yourself, your children, your grands and great-grands and for generations to come. Join your story to the greatest story ever told. Let your life, faithfully lived, be the reply