A Living Language

A Living Language

Homily for Easter 2

April 24, 2022

A Living Language

Homily for Sunday, April 24, 2022
The Second Sunday of Easter
Revelation 1:4–8

Some may know that I am studying Irish in anticipation of spending several months in Ireland next winter (with Ashley on a Fulbright and me on sabbatical).  As you may know, Irish is peculiar in that words on the page look nothing like how English speakers might pronounce them.  For example, “S-A-O-I-R-S-E,” Irish for “freedom” and now also a name, is pronounced SEER-shuh.  “U-I-S-C-E,” Irish for water, is pronounced ISH-kuh.  And “F-Á-I-L-T-E,” the word for “welcome,” is pronounced FOAL-chuh.  Because at the turn of the last century it was stigmatized as the language of the poor, Irish nearly disappeared.  It is only because of decades of effort by the Irish government that Irish has been and continues to be revived as a proud symbol of Irish culture.

I want to get back to learning a language, but first, Toni Morrison on the dangers, not of a disappearing, but of a truly “dead” language.  In her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Morrison had this to say about the dangers of a dead language:

A dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis….  It can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation….  It has no desire or purpose other than maintaining… its… exclusivity and dominance…. It actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential…. It cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences…. “Tongue-suicide”… common among… infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts… is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism…. Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental…  Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability and harmony among the public…. [It is] language crafted to lock people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.

Scholars believe that the author of the Book of Revelation—from which we heard this morning and from which we will hear throughout the Easter season—wrote Revelation to encourage Christians who, in the late first century, were being persecuted for failing to follow the emperor Domitian’s decree that all worship him as a god.  To borrow from Morrison, Domitian and the empire spoke a dead language, an “unyielding language” that set aside “nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation.”  Domitian and the empire spoke language that “had no desire or purpose other than maintaining exclusivity and dominance,” that could not “tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences.”  The empire spoke a language that “drank blood, lapped vulnerabilities, tucked its fascist boots under crinolines of… patriotism” and that “summoned false memories of stability” and “harmony among the public.”

It was in response to the empire’s dead language that the author of Revelation wrote his book.  To hear Revelation is to hear not a dead but “living” language, language that—with poetry, creativity and vivid imagination—breathes.  The language of Revelation is language with properties that are “nuanced, complex [and] mid-wifery.”  The language of Revelation is language that has the capacity to “tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell a different story, fill baffling silences.”  It is language that has power to strengthen the intellect, form the conscience, foster human potential.  In short, with its breath and creativity, the language of Revelation offers the opportunity to sing regardless of circumstance.  

Revelation gives voice to angels’ singing:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!

Revelation helps “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” to sing:

To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
Revelation enables “the elders…who stood around the throne…and the four living creatures…before the throne” to sing:
Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever!  Amen!

What all this singing did for those who are victims of the “tongue-suicide” of Domitian, that “infantile head of state”—what all this singing language does for those who are victims of such “tongue-suicide”—is create a space to be.  With poetry, creativity and a vivid imagination, the author of Revelation used “living” language to create a space where truth is told and where the intellect is not thwarted nor the conscience stalled.  A place that neither suppresses potential nor provides shelter for despots nor summons false memories of stability and harmony among the public.  A space where language does not lock any in cages of inferiority and hopelessness.  What all this living language and singing did—what all this living language and singing does—for those who are victims of oppressive, obscuring and malign dead language (and this is the thrust of the book of Revelation) is help them to find not just any space, but (in the words of Revelation) “a new heaven and a new earth,” “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” where “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more…and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (7:16–17 and 21:1).

It is no small thing to task language with helping us find a “new Jerusalem”—and language on its own never can in full.  Which is why we in the Church pair language with symbol and sacrament.  If we wish to give our world a chance of rising from underneath the “menace and subjugation” of dead language (a chance that the author of Revelation gave his world) it is up to us Christians to immerse ourselves in, and to learn to speak, the living language of our Scriptures and Sacraments: to immerse ourselves in the “baptism” of their poetry and nuance; to partake of the “bread” of their complexity; to drink the “wine” of their “midwifery properties”; to learn to sing our living language of (to quote Revelation) “the Alpha and the Omega,” of “the lamb that was slain,” of “great multitudes that no one can count,” of “those who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb,” of the “elders” and the “four living creatures,” of “those who have come through the great ordeal.”  If we wish to counter the “systematically-looted,” “dead” language that menaces and subjugates our world, it is up to us Christians to not merely speak but to “sing” our living language.

Which brings us back to learning a language….  This living language that we the Baptized are called to speak and sing may, kind of like Irish, look to the world nothing like how it is pronounced; that is, living our Baptismal vows in earnest may seem to the world at least peculiar, if not outright foolish.  And yet if our “language” is to be living and not dead, if our language is to speak a world out of its paralyzed, “dumb, predatory, sentimental,” and “systematically-looted” language, it is up to us to continue to learn—it is our responsibility to continue to practice!—our language of Scripture and Sacrament.  And, if the Book of Revelation is any indication, if enough of us learn to speak the poetry, the creativity and the vivid imagination of the living language of (to quote Revelation) “the seven spirits who are before his throne,” of “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness,” of “him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,” then among us we will form a choir.  A choir that breathes, that sings, and that—even here in our very world (suggests Revelation)—by our singing and with God’s help we will do what the language of despots and “infantile heads of state” can never do (and here I quote from passages from Revelation that we will hear in weeks to come)—“the new Jerusalem will come down out of heaven from God” (21:22) and the home of God will be among mortals, and…

He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples…
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more." (21:3–4)

And the Spirit and the bride will say, “Come.”  And everyone who hears will say, “Come.”  And everyone who is thirsty will come and take the water of life as a gift.  “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.”  (Rev 22:17 & 20).

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