Performative Utterance

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is the rhyme that children chant in the schoolyard, during recess. But we learn, early on as children, that words do in fact hurt, and can heal. Words create whole worlds, and destroy them with a disturbing ease. Think of words like “I do.” “Go to hell!” or “I have a dream.”

Human beings use words with power. How much more so for God? Indeed, running throughout the Scriptures is a God who speaks. In a tone of the very first things Scripture tells us that God creates by using words. God speaks and worlds become. “Let there be light and there was light.” God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, and to Israel through the judges and prophets. There is something fundamental about God which is about speaking, about language and about words.

It is natural that John turns to the metaphor of language when wrestling not only with what Jesus did and what happened in the life of Jesus, but with who Jesus is and what Jesus means. Luke which we read last night records a different version of the Christmas story, Jesus was born in squalid conditions, there were signs and wonders which surrounded his birth, Herod the local ruler got a bit exercised about the talk about his birth, shepherds, angels, stars, all that has come to be recognized and over advertised in our culture today, all that which comes out for Christmas pageants and Christmas cards.

But this morning’s gospel reading hasn’t inspired many nativity plays or Christmas cartoons.John’s account is rather abstract, after all. John, writing seventy or a hundred years after the other Gospels is attempting to come to terms with the assertion and intuition that the Church has that the baby in the manger is not just a prophet or a sage, not just a hill country preacher, but somehow God, come down to live among us. So the writer to Gospel of John or the editor collecting the writings begins the work with the passage that we heard read this morning, the abstract and famous piece which seems to be one of the earliest recorded Christian hymns.

“In the beginning, was the Word,” and immediately we run up against the barrier of language. The Greek word here for “word” is “logos” and “logos is a little hard to translate. It means not simply speech like “Hi, how are you?” or “The sky is blue.” In Greek, “logos” denotes something that is concerned and linked to being, to the innermost places of our hearts and lives. The Greek word has given birth to our word “logic” and that somehow makes for a much better sense of what the composer of the hymn is trying to convey. Jesus is the intimate logic of God, the core being and principle, inscribed in flesh for us.

In college I took a linguistics class and while I've lost or repressed a great deal of what I learned then, there is one concept from modern language theory which has always fascinated me. The idea that there are some speech acts which are substantively different from most of the language that we use. Most of the time we use language as filler – we use it simply to describe, or to communicate something obvious: the dog is brown or the sky is blue or the egg on my breakfast plate is hot. But modern language theorists call certain parts of our speech "performative utterance," a performative utterance is the speech act that actually does something; rather than describing reality that is, performative utterances create reality by speaking. Like a magic spell from a fairy tale, by speaking the words we bring about what we say. When we stand across from another person and say "I take you to be my wife or my husband," we aren't simply describing a relationship that already exists, by speaking those words we are actually marrying someone. When we take a new child and wash them in the waters of Baptism and proclaim the words "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," we are doing precisely that, joining a lovely little one into the Church and making them one with the Body of Christ. When Sean or I are standing as the focus of this community gathered, and we say "This is my Body" or "This is my Blood" we are not describing a mystery or enacting a ritual; we as a body, as clergy and laity, are making of bread and wine, the Body and Blood of our Lord.

Performative utterance unites intention and action in a marvelous and powerful way, where saying becomes doing, and doing saying; where speech and action are one.

Which may seem like rather an abstract way to get around to talking about something substantive this morning. It is hard for me to imagine that a host of you are going to go home and, in response to the question about what the sermon this morning was about, reply “Performative utterance.” But sometimes I think the only way to understand this famous passage from John is to think of it in rather unusual terms.

Jesus is the performative utterance of God, the Word who, simply by being spoken, draws us into the heart of God.  Jesus is the word whose speech creates the world and Jesus is the word whose speech redeems the world.  Jesus is the intimate logic of God, the sentence who interrupts our darkness with a word of light that creates light,  a word of peace that creates peace, a word of love that creates love.

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are celebrating the Incarnation, that powerful and tremendous blending of speech and action, where doing and saying become one. Where God’s speech act, God’s logic, that word which is at the core of God’s being becomes fully human and comes to live and be with us in our frailty and our humanity.

And the world is never the same again. For we have seen his glory, we have heard that word roll out like thunder. He unites earth and heaven. He becomes human that we might become divine. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.”


Preached by the Rev'd Andrew N. Ashcroft

Christmas Day 2008

St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 29, 2008 .