It’s easy to forget how much our experience is bounded by the language we use, how it colors our interpretation of everything we encounter. And no, I’m not just talking about “alternative facts,” though the political arena certainly offers prime examples about how rigidly our vocabularies and their contexts determine our worldviews. One person’s “Truth” becomes another person’s “truth,” even “belief” or “opinion,” and so on and so forth until we come to appreciate just how precarious communication can be. Translation between individuals can be hard enough, so it’s no wonder that we struggle so mightily to pin down meaning as we traverse across languages and millennia.
On the surface, this week’s Gospel reading seems like a nigh impossible theological thicket, revealing its fruits only to the most stalwart of scholars. What does Jesus mean by all of this syllogistic talk about “if you love” and “they who have [the] commandments”? Who is this “advocate” and how will they reveal all the valences of relationship between the believing community, the Father, and Christ? Overwhelmed by such questions, I turned back to the Greek to look and see if the original language could help me discern a way forward. Where we say truth, the writers of the New Testament said ἀλήθεια (aletheia), which literally means not-hidden. With this slight shift in perspective, the verse gains an almost pun-like quality with the surrounding talk of knowing and seeing. The advocate who Jesus promises to the disciples once he has apparently departed is “the Spirit of truth” insofar as they reveal and uncover what would otherwise be obscured. Where “the world” (κόσμος, kosmos or creation) may be oblivious to the identity of Jesus and the radical new closeness he offers, the Spirit helps us become revealers of a way of living that springs from love. Even the legalistic title of the Spirit as advocate helps expand upon this idea. Παράκλητος (parakletos) would mean an advocate or lawyer in the parlance of biblical Greek, but it even more literally means para-, from close beside, and kaleo, to make a call. The Spirit acts as advocate—or even comforter or helper—because of how impossibly near it brings our lives and the Divine life. We see God because of how intimately we are known and bound together in the Triune life. We are different from the rest of the world not by how much we fulfill commandments like some kind of holy checklist; instead, we differ by rejecting false dichotomies that would suggest the absence of God. The Spirit calls out to us again and again from all that is close beside, all that we experience. When we can recognize God regardless of differences of context or language and respond in love, then perhaps words like “orphans” will lose all meaning—then perhaps there will be no question about Christ’s presence in our midst.