Word in Language (4): Christ the Translator

But we prefer to own things. We prefer to draw a line and say ‘this is mine’. We are authors. And yet this is not true. Things pass through us, they do not begin with us. Air, food, words, experiences, even the gift of life, pass through us. We take what we need (meaning) and in the process we give meaning.

 

We are translators. Just as a translator allows the text to pass through him in order to translate it into another language, so the things of this world pass through us. But meaning is a two-way process. It is not only the text that passes through the translator, but the translator who passes through the text. He also is changed by the experience. He acquires meaning himself.

 

So it is with the things of this world – they pass through us, but we also pass through them. Money passes through our hands, for example, but we also pass through a house. Neither of them remains with us, we will leave them both behind. So neither truly belongs to us. What belongs to us, I think, is our reaction, how we use the things with which we are entrusted, how we react to situations. Our reaction – the destiny of our souls – is our belonging.

 

So is there nothing else we can truly be said to OWN? Well, I think there is, but it is not a thing, he is a person. And the process of meaning is the same.

 

If you have ever seen an icon of Christ Pantocrator, you might have noticed that inside the halo, in the beams of the Cross, are three letters: O WN. These are Greek letters and represent the Greek Septuagint translation of a verse from the Old Testament (perhaps the most important verse in the whole of the Old Testament, in my opinion): Exodus 3:14.

 

In Exodus 3:14, God meets Moses at the burning bush and replies to Moses’ question who he should say has sent him to the people of Israel to free them from the Egyptian overlords:

 

God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”’ (NRSV)

 

In Greek, this text reads:

 

καὶ εἶπεν ὁ Θεὸς πρὸς Μωυσῆν λέγων· ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν. καὶ εἶπεν· οὕτως ἐρεῖς τοῖς υἱοῖς ᾿Ισραήλ· ὁ ὢν ἀπέσταλκέ με πρὸς ὑμᾶς. (LXX)

 

I have underlined the names of God in the Greek text: ‘I am who I am’ (ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν) and ‘I am’ (ὁ ὢν).

 

O WN (ὁ ὢν) literally means ‘the being’. It is sometimes translated ‘the One Who is’. In reference to this appearance of God before Moses, when he revealed to him his name, these three letters are included in icons of Christ, because according to Orthodox tradition all appearances of God in the Old Testament are by the Logos, the Word of God, that is Christ.

 

But this has meaning in English because those same three letters spell OWN. We could be said to ‘own’ Christ inasmuch as we form part of his body in the Church. He is ours. But ownership in Christian terms is not about exerting control, it is about expressing love. In the same way, he could be said to ‘own’ us. He gives himself to us in the Eucharist; we give ourselves to him unconditionally. It is a two-way process.

 

OWN in English spells another two words: WON and NOW. Christ’s is the victory; with his Resurrection he has conquered death. The end of the world has yet to come (this is for another reason), but the victory is assured, even if it seems at certain points in our lives that the opposite is true. NOW because Christ is with us now. How does the illuminating Gospel of Matthew end? ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ His presence with us is permanent.

 

This, for me, is the meaning of ownership: to own Christ and to be owned by him. It is not to fight over portions of the earth. It is not to draw lines (supine egos) on the ground, around our property (which one day will not be ours). It is to give ourselves unconditionally. The giving the other way round (by Christ) has already been done, and that is the meaning of time: to turn meaning into a two-way process, to make it mutual.

 

The destiny of our souls depends on our reaction, our acceptance or not of Christ, our clinging to the letter of the law or its spirit, its deeper meaning, its greater good. This is ownership: to react with love or anger, to claim for ourselves or for the other, to cling to self-preservation (a futile task) or to lose our life in order to find it. This is why, having found the pearl, the merchant went and sold all that he had in order to buy it.

 

But there is something else – something that points to Christ as the Messiah, the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophets. The name of God in Exodus 3:14 is translated into English as ‘I am’. I think the whole of existence is contained in these three letters. First of all, we should note that ‘am’ contains the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega (AW, do not worry that the m has been turned upside down). This name is found for the first time in Revelation 1:8:

 

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (NRSV)

 

The expression ‘Alpha and Omega’ is contained in the verb ‘am’ – God could have just said ‘am’, and it would have been sufficient.

 

Also interesting is the fact that ‘am’ in reverse gives us the Sanskrit word ma, which means ‘create’. This is because God is the Creator, it is with him that things begin (not with us).

 

And finally the name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14 and reproduced in icons of Christ, ‘I am’, gives us two other words in English. The first of these is ‘law’. I think you can see this – a capital I and a lower-case l are practically identical; again, I have turned the m upside down (this is very common in language). ‘Law’ refers to the Old Testament – the law that Moses brought down from Mt Sinai on the tablets, the Ten Commandments, about worshipping the Lord your God and honouring your father and mother.

 

But this law is only a preparation for the law in person, that is Jesus Christ. Of itself, it does not give life, it does not conquer death – only Christ can do this.

 

And we see this when we make the progression from ‘I am’ to ‘law’ to another word in English: ‘way’ (y is the semi-vowel that corresponds to i).

 

In John 14:6, Christ says to Thomas:

 

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (NRSV)

 

Note how both ‘way’ and ‘Alpha and Omega’ are preceded by the pronoun and verb ‘I am’. It is as if Christ is extrapolating them, is drawing out their meaning. He is, in effect, teaching us to be translators.

 

Christ came down to earth for two reasons: one is to translate for us the meaning of life, and he does this using Braille (writing for the spiritually blind, that is us). His form of BRAILLE is the PARABLE (another phonetic pair is b-p).

 

The other reason has to do with the second part of that verse from the Gospel of John, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’, because not only did Christ come to translate for us the meaning of life (which is to believe in him), he also assumed our human nature (we are translators) so that he could later translate us into eternal life. You cannot do this if you are only an author. You must be a translator as well (the two natures of Christ, as defined at the Council of Chalcedon).

 

At the end of our lives, when we reach the end of our translation, of acquiring and giving meaning, we will become the word that best defines us, and that word will be spoken by Christ into eternal life. He will translate us. This is why translation is not inferior, it is not second-rate, it is not dog-eared like a book from the library, it is the essence of human life.

 

The fact that we see translation in a negative way is a reflection on ourselves, not on translation. Our wish to be authors – superior, first-rate and brand-new – reflects our desire to hold on to our lives at all costs. It responds to the instinct of self-preservation. But in the end we will be required to let the Word pass through us – and to pass through him – if we want to inherit eternal life.

 

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com

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