The Society of St. John the Evangelist has been praying the words of Advent. Actually, they pray a word each day, but for Advent, they have invited everyone to participate. Many of my friends and colleagues on social media post an image that captures the word of the day of Advent. Each morning over coffee, I explore the many ways those across the country (and in a few cases, the globe) interpret the holy words of Advent through their pictures. You can explore that Advent prayer discipline here.
I just returned from leading an Advent retreat in Dallas where the first part of my meditation focused on our words. We humans like...maybe love...our words. We spend a great deal of time and energy collecting our words that represent who we are, what we've accomplished, who we perhaps hope to be, delineate who we are not, among the many, many words we collect. We use words to label our relationships, to share our faith, even to share ourselves.
We people of faith are a people of the Word. The words of Holy Scripture invite us into the story of the human experience with God. We use words to tell that story, to attempt in small, sometimes imperfect ways, to capture the great mystery of God's relationship with humanity. For those of us in the Anglican-Episcopal tradition, our Book of Common Prayer holds our words of prayer. From the ancient words of the Great Litany to the modern prayers giving thanks for the vast expanse of interstellar space, our prayers in words and in silence shape our faith and belief.
The images posted by so many during Advent remind us that our words are merely representative of more. Words, after all, are simply words. They represent one way we communicate and share, but if the words are not filled with images, feelings, actions, and responses, they are merely hollow sounds that ring empty.
We can say every prayer in the Prayer Book, yet if we don't allow the words to root in our soul and have a life in us, they remain dry bones. We can read the stories, prophecies, hymns, and teachings in the Bible, but when we limit them to the literal word on the page, we can suffocate the breath of God from the life of those very words. We can collect and gather all the titles, accolades, and awards and list them proudly on our resume, but unless we allow ourselves to sit in the silence of God's word of love to us, we will never collect enough words to believe we are enough, just as we are. We can call people in our lives by their relationships to us - friend, partner, or the like - but unless our actions demonstrate our willingness to love and honor the other in that relationship, we are simply collecting people for our own use, not honoring the friendship.
Words, while able to express majestic aspects of our relationships with God, each other, and ourselves, can also be barriers to these same relationships. They can fill our heads and souls with clutter, preventing us from feeling the emotions that often speak our truths too deep for words. Words can become our default defenses when we are challenged in these holy relationships - we want to argue, defend, and explain ourselves or tell the other (yes, even God) how we want them to be instead of simply being in the space. All relationships - with God, each other, and ourselves - have times where our words fail us, and we must sit in the silence of emotion and feeling as we are urged to grow.
Advent is a time, as the days are much shorter and the nights and darkness have their moment of center stage, to remember that words are an entering gate to deeper feelings, actions, hopes, and fears. So pray the words, and in the darkness and silence of this season, let God imbue them with feelings, dreams, and silence.