The Life of Language: Keeping the Story Alive
Stories of the success of days hunt traded between clan members grew into a primer of tools to make for different purposes, how to hunt, plant, learn the traits of animals and plants, their coming and going, those fit to eat and those to avoid, the paths to take on the turning of the seasons, the ways to make shelter or covering of the body for protection from the elements and later for protection from beasts and than human adversaries. Among the most revered persons in any tribe was the storyteller. This person was the tribes walking encyclopedia of knowledge and repository of the history - not only of that clan, but of battles with other clans.
Looking to our Jewish roots, how many times in what became the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) does God tell his chosen leaders and dictate messages through the prophets to remind the people to tell the great works of the Lord to their children (and their children's children) so that those great works would never be forgotten? Countless times.
Jesus preached, told stories, parables, made analogies, drew crowds to him by the personal magnetism he surely possessed. He spoke, taught, and eventually instructed his chosen apostles (pupils) to tell the ageless story of God's love, forgiveness and boundless compassion to everyone - even to the ends of the earth.
For years and years that is exactly what happened. Eye witnesses to the teachings, activities and power of Jesus Christ spread this Good News translated to Gospel by word of mouth. From person to person. Over a meal, while working, during quiet times, during community gatherings. At appointed times the people would then gather and, with a chosen leader to preside present, these people then recreated His last worldly supper word for word in early Eucharists. It wasn't until later that written language entered the arena of history.
All of these reflections went through my mind today while I watched a program on The National Geographic channel. To my shock - and even to the knowledgeable scientists dismay it is estimated that in approximately twenty (20) years, a full one half of the languages spoken on the earth today will die: become extinct and only faint memories. No one will be left with the knowledge or even the mental recall of the way their native language sounded or what it meant.
Being a storyteller, this cuts me to the quick. How much history, knowledge, ritual, tradition will be lost forever - like the tides of the ever-growing world wide water levels coming up the shorelines only to drawing more land into itself as it ebbs....lost...vanished...as if it had never been. Fortunately, I learned in the same program about The Enduring Voices Project sponsored by National Geographic as well as another organization, Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages which is venturing into places where native languages are being replaced by English, French, Spanish, Chinese or Russian.
I can recall not so many years ago hearing that no one was left on the earth that could speak the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke. Oh, what it must have been to hear him speak and understand his every word. We have translations, first Greek followed by Latin and other languages bearing a written testimony, but only God knows how many fingers have been into the pot on that stew.
Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have - in our own day - the great great umpteenth great grandchild of an eyewitness and contemporary of Christ whose major function had been to convey the vital verbal history of Jesus' actions and teachings, word for word - practicing them over and over again until the biographers, each in turn, became the historical legacy of the life and work of Jesus Christ.
We do not, in hindsight, have this luxury. We have, however, been blessed with teachers and mystics through the ages who found a way - on paper - to pass on the spiritual legacy of the life and love of Christ.
While we may strive to interpret the Eucharist and its meaning to todays generations, it is important to honor the language of earlier versions of the Bible, the Psalms, the Books of Common Prayer. Written language struggles both to balance and convey the relevance and transcendence of God, which is a difficult task indeed. Perhaps that is why we are currently seeing a renaissance of sorts of the Fine and Lively Arts in our cathedrals and individual parishes. It may be the best way we have of respecting the life encapculated by language - and keeping the Greatest Story ever told truly alive.