Monday, April 27, 2015

Edible words

And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. (Ezekiel 3:3)
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
I have sometimes wondered whether the Bible's prohibition against idolatry was really consistent. After all, aren't words themselves symbolic windows into God's existence, a sort of image for the ears rather than the eyes? One could argue that using words to describe God's ineffable existence is just as dangerous as trying to depict it through images.

Yet recently I was once again struck by the Bible's description of words as food. Funny thing about food: whatever you eat was once a living thing, and then it died.

And isn't that exactly how words function in reality? A single word is so short-lived. It has hardly left your mouth before it is dead, yielding totally to the words or silence which come after it. Even the written word functions this way. You cannot read by staring at a single word; you must let it die, letting your eyes advance continually in order to gain the whole idea of phrases and paragraphs.

Images do just they opposite. They impose upon you. If an image is before you, even if you want, you cannot simply let it pass away. It demands that you at least allow it a place in the background of your mind. It can change your mood without you even realizing it. It insists on immovability, a sort of immortality, if you will.

But Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." The most permanent fixtures in all of ordinary human experience will die, but these words--which die as soon as they are born--will live forever.

It is the great paradox of Christianity once again. "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." Images insist on their own immortality, but they are in fact lifeless. Words exist only to die, and thus they feed us, and so they live forever.

I don't mean this meditation to be polemical, but I will confess that it confirms my iconoclasm, which is standard for Protestants. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have good arguments in favor of icons. They argue that the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God, changes and sanctifies physical reality in such a way that to prohibit icons would be to deny that incarnation. But I think these arguments nevertheless miss the most radical part of Christ's incarnation--he came to die. It is only because he died that he can feed us with himself. And let's not forget that when he rose again, he rose with a new body that was barely recognizable to his disciples. If there is an image of Christ to be used in worship, it is of course the bread and the wine; but even these are meant to be consumed.

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