Father Michael Barrow

From the parish of St Francis of Assisi

The Smile In God's Voice:A Reflection by Fr. Michael Barrow, S.J.

The Smile In God's Voice:A Reflection by Fr. Michael Barrow, S.J.
Fr. Michael Barrow, S. J.


"Don't look at me in that tone of voice." I wonder how much is conveyed to us in our early years by looks and how much by tone of voice. Nobody teaches us how to laugh or smile. Nobody sits us down and gives us lessons on how to love – we learn that by growing up in a loving family. New-born children learn love and security by being held in their mother's arms. As their eyes become focused they recognise their mother's smile and soon respond with their own smile and giggle. But perhaps more than the smiling and holding the child, it is the mother's or father's voice that conveys love, long before the words themselves have any meaning. It may simply be "baby talk" – the tone of voice conveying love more than the meaning of any words.

It's difficult to know how much a child takes in because even if they could speak what they absorb is far more important than can be put into words. We can experiment with animals and have found that a dog responds to a voice of encouragement or disapproval in a way that means more to the animal than food. A young dog even distinguishes praise which is sincere from what is fictitious.

Words convey so much but the tone of voice is much more effective and more deeply touching. Christ is the Word of God and needs a sincere voice to bring that Word to us. And the Word was made flesh. Christ, the Word of God, became human. God our Lord touches our hearts directly, but the Word needs other people in our lives to convey it to us.When a child is born they are created by God, and at the same time it is true to say they are created by the mother and father. In the same way when the Word of God takes possession of our hearts, it is by the direct action of God and at the same time comes to us through other people in our lives. The Word of God needs a voice and uses us as the voice to convey his Word.


God works through us. As St Therese of Avila wrote, "Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours."

The Bible itself is a voice that brings the Word of God to the world. If you asked St John why he wrote his gospel, he would say (as at the end of chapter 20): "so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that believing this, you may have life through his name." St John in his gospel was not simply trying to tell us about Christ or record the history of his life but to bring us to the point of having life through Christ. To convey what is meant by having life he uses words and imagery, not so much for us to understand it as to experience it. His favourite image is of light and darkness.

Growing up in the world of electricity we have so little experience of real darkness, but we know in our hearts and in our lives the darkness of depression. The coming of Christ into the world is seen as a light shining in the darkness in the way that darkness could not overcome it. And so at Christmas time we quote that image from Isaiah (chapter 8) "The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light; on those who live in the land of deep shadow light is shone." His next phrase makes it clearer, "You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase. They rejoice in your presence."


The effect of the coming of Christ is to bring us joy, and the tone in which we express it must convey that joy. But it is not only a Christmas message. Now after Christmas at the beginning of the year, when we read the gospel of Jesus beginning to preach and reveal himself to the people, we go back to the same reading to express the effect he had on them. He has made their gladness greater. He has made their joy increase. We rejoice in his presence. Christ came to bring us into the light - in other words that we may experience love and life.

As Jesus himself put it, "I have come so that they may have life and have it more abundantly." Although this is why Jesus came and the purpose of the gospels is for us to experience the love of Christ, how often is that the aim of our preaching? Some really good homilies and sermons have been to persuade people to be good and kind and generous. To encourage people to live moral lives and avoid anything that is sinful must sometimes be the subject of our preaching; as St John said in his first letter, "I'm writing this to stop you sinning." Again the purpose of a homily might be to encourage people to worship, teaching them how to pray.

But none of these are nearly so important as what Jesus wanted to achieve, "that they may have life and have it more abundantly." Like a baby learning love and joy from their mother or father, we learn love and life from Christ by the tone of voice that brings it to us. Just as a mother holds a little baby in her hands and looks into the child's eyes and conveys the love of her heart and the delight she experiences in looking at her baby, so God our Lord holds us in his hands and looks at us to convey his own love and his delight in our existence. If the word of God is to touch our hearts, the voice must be one of joy for the smile in the voice to convey the delight of God.

Fr. Michael Barrow SJ

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