Words Matter

Beginning this coming Advent, parishes across our country will begin using the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, featuring a new English translation of the Mass. We are going to notice quite a few changes. What I’d like to explore with you is not only what some of those changes will be, but more importantly, why the changes are occurring. Let’s begin looking at the “why” part by establishing some basic principles.

The first (and in many ways most important) principle is that words matter. What we say and how we say it has an effect on our beliefs, our perceptions, our understanding, and how important information is transmitted from one person to another and from one generation to the next. Let me give a few examples.

This first one is from history. You may be familiar with the phrase “not one iota of difference.” This comes from an early conflict within the church over the nature and person of Jesus Christ. One of the largest and most destructive heresies in the early centuries of the Christianity was Arianism, named for Arius, a priest from Lybia, who taught that Jesus Christ was created by God and therefore could not be equal to God. Jesus was the greatest of all of God’s creatures, but he was created and not himself divine.

To combat this error the Church convened the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, from which we get our Nicean Creed. Part of that familiar creed states that Jesus Christ is “one in being” with the Father. This comes from the Latin consubstantialum, (where we get our word “consubstantial”) which itself is a translation of the Greek word homoousios. That word comes from the Greek words homo, meaning “the same” and ousios, meaning “substance or essence.” So, in other words, we believe that Jesus Christ and God the Father are of the same essence. They are substantially the same. They are one in being.

Well, there was a faction at the Council of Nicea who would have preferred the term homoiousios, which means “like in substance.” The reason some preferred this term was because they thought ousios might also be taken to mean “person” and the Father and the Son are two different persons. So they preferred to say that they were “like” or “similar” in their substance, not the same.

That term was ultimately rejected for many reasons, but I’ll just give you one. We believe in one God. We are monotheists. We don’t have a pantheon like the Hindus or the ancient Greeks. That’s always been a hallmark of Christianity and it likewise set the Jewish people apart from their neighbors for millennia. God revealed Himself to the Jews as the one and only universal God. The first commandment is that Thou Shalt Have No Gods Before Me. That’s a biggy!

So what would it do to our monotheism if we said that Jesus and the Father were like in essence or nature, but not the same? Well, let’s just look at ourselves. I have human nature. And you have human nature. In other words, we are like in nature. But we don’t both share the same human nature. We are two different individual beings. So likewise if we believed that Jesus had a divine nature that was similar to the Father’s divine nature but not the same nature, then all of a sudden we are not worshiping one God, but two!

And so it was very important that the Council Fathers at Nicea considered their words carefully and chose homoousios or “one in being” rather than homoiousios or “like in being.” The two words are so similar, only differing by one letter “i” or iota in Greek. And that one iota of difference is a bedrock principle of what we believe and proclaim about the nature of Jesus Christ.

So words do matter. They matter in theology. And they matter in the liturgy, as well. There is an old saying, lex orendi, lex credendi, or “how we pray is how we believe.” The words we use in our prayers really and truly do affect what we believe about God and our relationship with Him.

I was attending Mass out of town one year on Ascension Sunday. At this parish, the priest gave a good homily about what it means that Jesus Christ rose bodily into heaven, and how His physical human body has now been taken into the Godhead, uniting the human and divine natures. And how it is important to our faith that we know and understand that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and Ascended bodily into heaven, for this is our ultimate destiny; to be united, spirit and body, with our creator in heaven. It was a nice homily — on point, a good message.

Well, during Communion, the choir sang a song, the refrain of which was, “Jesus has no body now, but you.” The point of the song was that we all must be the hands and feet of Christ, doing His work here on earth through His Church. That is a great message; it’s perfectly fine on its own. However, the refrain, set to a catchy tune, had us singing over and over again that “Jesus has no body,” at the point of the Mass when we were receiving the Body and Blood of Christ!

And this on Ascension Sunday, when we celebrate the fact that Jesus ascended with His body into heaven. I very much doubt many there that day would remember the message of the homily, that Jesus Ascended bodily into heaven. Instead they would walk out to the parking lot, humming to themselves, “Jesus has no body…” Words matter.

And our theology matters. Our liturgy matters. Our prayers matter. These things all shape how we understand the world we live in, how we understand and worship God. And so the words we use when we teach and when we pray, especially when we pray together as one Church in the liturgy, really are important. We must take great care to select our words and make certain that we understand them well.