There are words we all commonly use and think we know what these words mean. Words like God, Jesus, Jew, Holocaust, evil, and death. We commonly use these words as if to say we understand but the fact is we do not.
These words possess weight, heft, timber, threat and mystery. Smart people, smarter than you or me, have investigated them for millennia and still their meaning eludes us. But they are important words, vital words, and they will not go away for they touch something deep in our souls and they ought to.
We are creatures that long to understand what we are doing here on this planet that floats and rotates in black space. And these common words with uncommon meanings pull at us because they are “limit” words. They take us to those places where, if we’re honest, we know we do not know, but we act and talk like we know.
Look at the word Holocaust. The word means burnt offering and gives the impression of something done to appease an angry god. But the common meaning is that of a horrendous disaster and we think we know what that means. But the word Holocaust points to something much deeper and profound, the ability of human beings to be inhuman and to arbitrarily and systematically murder a million children under the age of ten. The horror of the event is so horrible we dare not get too close or precise for fear of what we will see and what it will do to us.
Or the word and name, Jesus. Here is a man, a Jew who lived over two thousand years ago, some call him the Christ without a second thought, Jesus, who remains a mysterious puzzle to many of us wrapped and bound in ambiguous messianic scriptures, sophisticated theological language, awful Hollywood movies where he is always strangely pictured as having a British accent, Jesus, whose followers have loved and cared for the neighbor and who have also murdered the neighbor in Jesus name, Jesus disputed by Jews and Muslims with sound questions, weighted down with creeds, and dogmas and hymns and liturgies, books upon books and yet this poor Jew is still not understood. For all the religious christological hoopla and faith, we do not know who he was and what he really accomplished. Yet, the word Jesus, has an ongoing intricate place in our culture’s vocabulary.
There’s a wildness and a secrecy about these words that keeps us from getting too close. Holocaust, God, Jesus, Jew, evil, and death: all these common words along with others with uncommon meanings haunt us because they are so much part of our lives and yet we do not know what they mean. We talk and write, not with these words but, against them. And whether we are for or against them, they will not let us go.