I watched “The Bishop’s Wife” a few nights ago. No, I’ve never seen it before. I’ve seen clips, but not the whole thing. Cary Grant, David Niven, Loretta Young. A nice film, good for the Christmas season. And as I watched there came a scene where Loretta Young is brushing her hair and humming a light tune. Her husband, the Bishop, turns to her, saying something like, “That’s a gay tune, dear.”
And it struck me, again, how words have morphed from one thing - one meaning - to another entirely. The Bishop wasn’t, of course, dissing his wife, or the tune. He wasn’t using a slur. He was describing the tune as light, happy, pleasant. Nowadays that word ‘gay’ no longer has that meaning. To use it as it once was used is to confuse people who will assume that you don’t like something, or are insulting someone, or are maybe taking a political stance. Sad, ain’t it?
In the same vein, I stumbled on a Christian radio station online, and while decorating my apartment for Christmas, listened to a sermon. Why not? It’s Sunday.
And listening, and relating it to that phrase from “The Bishop’s Wife”, I thought of how language has changed over the centuries. Take the simple phrase from Scripture, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”
Mark 10:14 : But when Jesus saw [it], he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
Kinda scary, huh? And confusing, what with Him being displeased. Suffer isn’t a nice word. But that’s not the meaning that the readers of the Scripture took from it originally. Suffer meant ‘let’ or ‘allow’, not “to undergo or feel pain or distress“ as the dictionary defines it. In the King James English the word suffer, in this instance, is archaic, misunderstood, a head-scratcher. But the Word means quite simply ‘allow.’
Anyway, back at the sermon, at one point the preacher was talking about Christ dwelling among us, and my mind left the sermon - it does go off on tangents - and went to the original language from which the Scripture referenced came. The Scripture, of course, is from the book of John:
John 1:14: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
Now we know John did not speak King James’ English. I daresay he spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and early Latin - as spoken by the Romans of the time. He also spoke Greek. But not English, which didn’t exist as yet. So we’re talking about a translation from the original language to the English of 1611. In fact the oldest version of this book of John is written in Greek. And in that passage the word is not ‘dwelt’, but ‘tabernacled’. ‘The Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us [...]’.
A tabernacle is a tent, as the Hebrews knew, made of green boughs, animal skins, or other materials. A tent. We’ve come to think of a tabernacle as a kind of temple, holy place, something having to do with a congregation and worship. But at its root the word simply means a home - a humble place to dwell with your family.
Not as a king, or tyrant, or dictator. As a member of the family.
Now, in John we are told that the Word - Christ, the Son of God - became flesh - became a human being - and took His place among us as a member of the family of Man. He didn’t simply live among us. No, He became fully one of us, with all the frailties of human flesh, for a purpose. To fulfill God’s promise to redeem His people from Sin.
That simple word tabernacle, which is not quite understood today, has a very simple, yet utterly powerful importance. God, so John tells us, first created His Word - Logos, Christ, The Redeemer - and created nothing else. Whether or not you accept that, it’s what the Scripture says. Christ isn't simply God's only begotten Son, but Creation itself.
Now, go back to Genesis. Adam and Eve. See the corruption of understanding that has lasted for millennia. Now we’ve come to think of Eve as such a weak thing, easily tempted, who led poor Adam astray. The Scripture tells the story, but we’ve managed to sort of misunderstand the full impact of the tale. Remember that Eve was tempted by the Serpent. Satan himself. Satan is the Deceiver. A most powerful Spirit of Evil. Adam was merely tempted by Eve. Who was the weaker? Who was the more easily led astray? Not Eve, but Adam.
And God knew this was going to happen. Knew it before he - or The Word - created Adam in His image. He knew that Man would fall before the blandishments of the Devil, would Sin, and would have to be punished. Why punished? Why not simply forgiven for this transgression?
Look at the Scripture. From Numbers 23:19 :
God [is] not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do [it]? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?
And what had he said, what words that required such a dire punishment to all Humanity? Genesis, again. Genesis 2:17 :
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
When God makes a promise He keeps it. He does not equivocate, He does not hem and haw. Having said it He keeps His word. Thus, having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve had to die, and their offspring were condemned to death, as well. God had no choice because He explained what was permitted, what was not, and the penalty for disobedience. And God knew this was going to happen. But He also planned for this. He created a way out for Humanity. That ‘escape clause’ is the Christ - the Word made flesh.
And once made flesh - becoming human - the Word did not live in a temple or a palace. He ‘pitched His tent’ with the rest of His family, took upon Himself all the sorrows of the flesh. He - the Son of God - made Himself one of us. You see, the English word dwelt has nowhere near the depth of meaning as the word John chose. Jesus didn’t simply dwell with us, but became one of us, fully, and thus provided for all time, the means to redemption from Sin. Redemption provided by God long before Adam and Eve existed.
When I think of that simple passage, it makes me feel very good. In Eastern religions we see the idea of Men becoming Gods, or like Gods. It feels alien to us in the West, as we cannot envision anyone being ‘good’ enough to become a God. But in Christianity our God deigns to become Human, to save us. And I like that idea much better.
And how is your Christmas season going? :)