Christmas: God speaking human
If you wanted to attract someone's attention, what would you do to make them sit up and take notice? Whatever you did, your aim would undoubtedly be to communicate as clearly and effectively as you could.
As you may have seen in the news, American researchers recently revealed that a Beluga whale named Noc learned to warble in a human voice so convincing it fooled a diver into thinking someone was shouting at him to get out of the water.
Staff at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in the USA heard muttering coming from a tank containing whales and dolphins and thought that a conversation was taking place between workers somewhere out of sight. It was only after a diver surfaced from the tank and asked: "Who told me to get out?" that researchers realised the "words" came from a whale. Researchers said: "We interpreted the whale's vocalisations as an attempt to mimic humans."
A few weeks later, scientists reported that an elephant had learnt to imitate spoken words – albeit by "whistling" in the Korean language. A researcher from Vienna University said she was astonished when she realised that the 22-year-old elephant could speak Korean words such as "annyong", meaning "hello", and "choah", meaning "good".
We find these reports fascinating because communication lies at the heart of all we do and are as humans – and the idea that other species might somehow learn to talk with us is a fascinating and beguiling one which opens up all sorts of tantalising possibilities.
One of the many positive comments about the next Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has been that, as one clergy colleague famously put it, he "speaks human". In other words, he is able to connect in ordinary language with people. He is a man with a gift for making the things of God accessible to all sorts of individuals.
It seems to me that a helpful way of thinking about Christmas is to see it as God "speaking human". It is God seeking to communicate, to establish contact, to attract our attention. But he does this not with a bang (for example, with the authoritarian pageantry of some dictatorial potentate), but a whimper – the cry of a new-born baby who would go on to grow up, sharing our messy human existence, and communicating clearly, eye-to-eye, with ordinary, down-to-earth people such as ourselves.
When the Bible speaks of Jesus being "the word made flesh" this is not just some fancy theological term, but a way of expressing the fact that the God who made the universe didn't just drop tablets of stone out of the sky, but was so keen to communicate with us that he came to us directly in person.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews sums it up so well: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by the Son, whom he appointed heir of all things... Therefore, we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?"
This Christmas we have the opportunity of listening once again to God "speaking human" – and enabling others to hear him for the first time. Whales and elephants that "talk" are one thing – but a God who comes as "the word made flesh" deserves our full attention.