What is God's
Language in a New Lectionary
by Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I.,
Archbishop of Chicago
On the first Sunday of Advent in 1998, the Church began a new
liturgical year. Many parishes began using a revised version
of the New American Bible Lectionary, which will become normative
for liturgical use in this country. Advent prepares us for the
celebration of Christmas, the first of the mysteries of Jesus'
life that we contemplate and celebrate throughout the Church's
Year of Grace. Jesus' annunciation and birth, however, are events
in a long process of God's self-revelation in human history.
One key to understanding this revelation is to look at it as
a process in the growth of intimacy between God and the human
family, as God gradually taught us his name.
The Name of God
When God began to reveal himself in history, Abraham, who
was a polytheist, dared not to ask God's name. To give someone
your name is to open your existence to him or her. Centuries
later, Moses did ask for God's name in the presence of a burning
bush; and God answered by calling himself "I am who am." That
enigmatic name was so awe-inspiring to the chosen people that
they replaced it in writing with words like "Lord." The people
of Israel struggled to remain faithful to God's revelation while
surrounded by fertility gods and goddesses, by mythological
figures and deifications of political rulers, by idolatries
of many sorts.
centuries later, God revealed himself definitively in history
by sending his eternal Son who became incarnate of the Virgin
Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:32-35). Jesus,
whose name means Savior and who most often called himself "Son
of Man," began gradually to increase our intimacy with God.
He told stories to show how God acts. He also spoke of the Holy
Spirit and called God his Father.
In the centuries since God's self-revelation in Jesus, the
Church has preserved the stories Jesus told, rejoiced in his
saving death and resurrection, sacramentally celebrated his
life in us, awaited his return in glory, and contemplated who
God is. God is pure spirit. As God, he is neither male nor female
because he has no body. He is, however, from all eternity the
Father of his only begotten Son, who has become in history Our
Lord Jesus Christ. What a spiritual and eternal engendering
is and how it contrasts with a biological and temporal engendering
is part of the mystery of the Godhead; but the eternal engendering
is real and so is the name: Father. Because we are "in Christ,"
and only to the extent we are "in Christ," his Father really
and not just metaphorically becomes our Father.
The Core of Revelation
Years ago in grade school catechism class, the Sister teaching
us explained very succinctly that God is a Father who is not
a male. We do not, therefore, look at males and extrapolate
to a divine biological progenitor. We look at Jesus, who shows
us his Father, who becomes intimately ours in the gift of the
Holy Spirit (John 14:8-11). The mystery of the Blessed
Trinity can never be totally explained. It can be partially
grasped, however, by living God's life in us and coming to know
the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. This is the
core of Christian revelation.
Forgetting that God has revealed himself as three divine Persons
sharing one Being leads through the centuries to bizarre theories
about God. One that still floats around today and occasionally
appears even in theological circles conceives God as a kind
of unknowable Force which becomes pre-eminently visible in a
human person named Jesus, who is a prophet proclaiming values
relating us to one another in a spirit which unites us all to
God. Religion's job, therefore, is to tell us we really are
gods, that "the Force is with us," as George Lucas puts it popularly
in the Star Wars movies. In this vision of things, Jesus may
be a prophet; but he's not a savior, since we're all gods to
begin with. And since all human language about this Force is
merely metaphor, choose the names for God that are meaningful
Or, acknowledging the Trinity but unhappy with a hierarchy
of First, Second, and Third Persons, some theologians have taken
to conceiving the Trinity as a society of equals with unknown
The preferred names for God, then, are said to be non-relational
or even merely functional. Behind this theory lies the conviction
that the Church, icon of the Trinity, must be only a discipleship
of equals functionally related by various ministries. The Quakers,
it seems, are right; and the apostles, captives of their hierarchical
culture, wrong. Proper Trinitarian language helps protect us
from this sort of heterodox theorizing about God or his people.
Language about God Matters
While these reflections might seem somewhat esoteric, buckets
of blood have been spilled over the ages on language about God,
because there is no subject more important. Neither God nor
language about him is to be played with lightly. God is not
a mirror into which we peer to see ourselves represented nor
an idea we can take apart and put together with impunity. The
introduction of a revised translation of Holy Scripture in the
Lectionary used at Mass is therefore an important moment in
the life of the Church. It teaches us how to speak to and about
The new Lectionary is based on the revised version of the New
American Bible, which is the version already used in almost
all parishes in the United States. Its rhythms and cadences
will therefore be somewhat familiar, although the revision has
been made not only in the light of new manuscript study but
also with an ear for American speech at the end of the century.
Since language about ourselves, as well as about God, is something
of a minefield these days, not everyone will appreciate all
its usages. The translation tries to accommodate the sensitivities
expressed in what has come to be called "inclusive language,"
where these do not lead to betrayal of the inspired text itself.
The Lectionary uses grammatically masculine pronouns for God,
because the inspired authors used them and because avoiding
the use of personal pronouns risks reducing God to an impersonal
Force. To speak of ourselves, however, the usage is inclusive
where the text means to include everyone rather than to speak
to or about only men or only women.
One of the weaknesses of the inclusivist idiom is that it
is nominalist and individualistic. Its universe contains only
individuals and groups of individuals, whereas Christian discourse
predicates natures as such (e.g., "He became man"). Inclusive
language sometimes resembles an artificial code more than a
natural language, because it presupposes that words have only
one determined meaning. (For example, if you use a masculine
pronoun, you must be talking about a biological male, although
this presupposition seems to disappear when speaking about wisdom
as feminine.) Despite the inadequacies of inclusive language
as language, some recognition of inclusivist concerns is pastorally
wise and, to an extent still to be determined, linguistically
What is the Lectionary?
In five years, we will be better able to sort out what is
genuine development in current linguistic usage and what is
only faddish. At that time, the Lectionary will be revisited.
Meanwhile, let us use the new Lectionary well. It is not a manifesto
but the Word of God translated into our words in order to unite
us in prayer and liturgical proclamation to God himself.
(This commentary is reprinted
New World, December 6,1998, p. 6. Cardinal George's column
appears regularly in this newspaper. For subscription information,
call (312) 243-1300 or Click
• See also the 1990 statement of the U.S. bishops, Criteria
for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations.
• For a summary of the bishops' discussion of the Lectionary
in June, 1997.
• For a commentary
Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania. Bishop
Trautman is a former chairman of the Bishops' Committee
on the Liturgy.
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