What are the first words that we learn when we are infants? I imagine for most of us it was some form of “Mama” and “Papa.” I confess that I can’t remember my own first words. Since most memories are language-based, I suppose my inability to remember comes as no surprise. What I do know is that my first language was German.
Among the very first words that my parents taught me was a little table prayer: Abba, lieber Vater, Danke. Amen. It’s about as simple as one can imagine. It’s made up of two-syllable words, easy for a small child to learn and rattle off when prompted. It means, “Papa, loving Father, thank you. Amen.”
The first word, Abba, is actually a loanword from ancient Aramaic, the language that Jesus and his disciples spoke. I am so grateful that at the very beginning of my development of language skills, my parents taught me to pray. And I am just as grateful that they taught me to call on God in familiar terms, just as I would call on my loving parents. In my now-filtered memory, that was my first encounter with God.
Actually, though, my first encounter with God occurred when I was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – the Holy Trinity. I don’t remember that because it happened when I was 3 months old. But that doesn’t make it any less important. In fact, knowing how memory can slip and slide even in our tender years – and how it can fade in our senior years – I’m more grateful for that baptismal encounter than I am for my linguistic instruction at table. At the font, the first words were not mine but God’s words to me: “You belong to me! My mark is upon your brow!”
First words. In the Biblical readings for the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, various characters utter various first words upon encountering God. What are your first words on this Sunday of the Holy Trinity?
Prayer of the Day: God of heaven and earth, before the foundation of the universe and the beginning of time you are the triune God: Author of creation, eternal Word of salvation, life-giving Spirit of wisdom. Guide us to all truth by your Spirit, that we may proclaim all that Christ has revealed and rejoice in the glory he shares with us. Glory and praise to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
Nicodemus came to see Jesus. He came at night when he didn’t haven’t to worry about who might be watching. After all, he was a Pharisee, one of the zealous teachers of the Jewish faith. Jesus was becoming a threat to the Pharisees, partly because he had some sharp words for them and other religious leaders, and partly because he was just so popular. It just wouldn’t do for a leader of the religious establishment to be seen meeting with the opposition, so Nicodemus came at night.
What an opportunity – to meet with Jesus Christ, the Anointed One, the Holy One of the Most High God! Now, if you had the opportunity to come into the presence of the Divine, what would your first words be?
Here’s what Nicodemus says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus addresses him rabbi or teacher. That’s high honour coming from a Pharisee who typically advocated a higher form of daily religious practice. Nicodemus acknowledges that, because of the powerful and miraculous signs that accompanied his teaching, Jesus is not just a garden variety teacher but one sent from God. So, these first words ought to elicit from Jesus some kind of affirmation.
But listen to Jesus’ reply: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
What?! Nicodemus greets Jesus with a compliment, and in reply Jesus says that Nicodemus doesn’t have any idea who he is. Why would Jesus say that?!
Listen again: “Rabbi, we know ...” Aha, there it is: we know. They’re only two words, but they speak volumes. We know. We already have you figured out. We’ve already fit you into our categories of religion. Our conventional wisdom informs us, and so we know just where you fit. We have you packaged and labelled.
Well, in some ways Jesus’ ministry did resemble that of the rabbis of the time. Of course, in other ways, his ministry was also like that of the great prophets from Israel’s past. Some people thought he had the characteristics of a prince or a military leader who would free the nation from the Romans.
But Jesus didn’t fit into any of those boxes. And neither Nicodemus nor anyone in any era could make sense of him unless one is born from above – that is, born of water and the Spirit.
What were Isaiah’s first words? Unlike many of the prophets, Isaiah was part of the ruling elite. He was a teacher or a scribe in the royal court of the Judean King Uzziah. Because of this, Isaiah was also familiar with the Temple and its sacrificial system. So, in the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah had a vision of the King – not an earthly king like Uzziah, but the King of heaven and earth. Isaiah had a vision of Almighty God reigning over all creation.
It was “out-of-this-world,” complete with a congregation of supernatural beings, calling out to one another with the hymn that informs our liturgy to this day: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. So glorious was the vision that the temple shook and was filled with the smoke of God’s all-consuming fire.
What were Isaiah’s first words? Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! Unlike Nicodemus, Isaiah makes no claims for understanding what is happening to him. Rather, his first words reflect his sense of exposure and utter humility as an individual before the creator and ruler of all things: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.
If we didn’t already know how the story turns out, we would guess that Isaiah’s first words would turn out to be his last words. His very existence is at stake! God, the king of all creation, is utterly holy, completely other. Isaiah knows that he simply cannot stand before this glorious throne. He is human; he is sinful. He knows that he should not be able to survive this encounter with Almighty God.
But rather than destroying him, God cleanses him. One of the heavenly beings took a burning coal from the celestial altar and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, purifying him of the sin and guilt that separated him from God and threatened his destruction. Isaiah’s first words are not his last! When the Lord calls out and asks who will go on the Lord’s behalf, Isaiah responded, “Here am I; send me.”
Finally, let’s jump forward about 850 years to the first words of St. Paul, one who indeed was born of water and the Spirit: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, Abba! Father!, it is that very spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
Abba! Father! Or more accurately, Papa. First words.
As I stated previously I know these words, because they were among my first. What a personal, endearing, and intimate way of calling upon the Creator of the universe!
On this Holy Trinity Sunday, I’m mindful of a variety of ways of speaking of God, suggested by theologians and philosophers throughout the centuries. Each way attempts to incorporate some aspect, some dimension of God that staggers the imagination: Creator, Almighty, Provider, Lord of all, Sustainer, Comforter.
But the word that God gives us for addressing the Divine is the simplest and most immediate word, the first word of a child who is just beginning to harness the power of speech by shaping the nonsense noises of infancy into the right combination of sounds to actually communicate. Mama, Papa ... Abba.
First words. This is the first word, the word that a helpless child uses to address his or her loving parent. Because of Jesus, this is the relationship we have with the Almighty Creator and Master of the Universe – a relationship that Jesus creates and establishes for us. This is new life!
Brothers and sisters in Christ: first words are so important. First words shape the budding relationship. Our first words are the words of little children. God has opened the way to us by sending Jesus Christ to create us anew, as children of a loving parent.
By sending the Spirit of the only beloved son to rid us of the power of sin and death, God breaks down the darkened resistance of Nicodemus. God purifies the unclean lips of a sinful and guilty Isaiah. God confronts a persecutor of the church by name of Saul, stops him in his tracks, and transforms him into Paul, a tireless and fearless proclaimer of God’s Good News in Jesus Christ.
God sends that same Spirit even today, to give us new life. Abba!, we cry in the presence of the Holy. Mama! Papa! We are born anew by the recreating power of the Creator of the universe, so that we might be in loving relationship with God, and at peace with God’s entire creation.
Let us take up this new life with confidence, knowing that because of Jesus Christ, we enjoy a loving, trusting relationship with the one, true God.