Father Mark Hoelsken SJ's homily during the Mass celebrating KNOM Radio's thirtieth anniversary

Archbishop Francis T. Hurley was main celebrant, July 13, 2001, one day before the anniversary date.  Here is the text of Fr. Mark's talk:

(John 1:1-18)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, `He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.'"  From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.

In the beginning, John says, was the Word.  Then God created KNOM, and the word became a torrent of words.

On this occasion marking the 30 anniversary of KNOM I want to share with you some reflections on words and their peril, on Jesus, the Word of God, and on the mission of KNOM.

There’s a plaque that hangs in the residence of the little village of Newtok, which reads: “Blessed is he who has nothing to say, and the courage not to say it.”  The Deacon in Newtok loves to rib me about it.

But there’s an important point there–words are dangerous.  All words are limited symbols.  Don’t most husbands and wives run into that problem?

In the village I’ve just come from one of my friends is staying home this month watching the kids while his wife is in the pre-maternal home in Bethel, waiting near the hospital to have another child.  He calls her every day.  He better.  So he called her the other day.  She was having one of those lonely days.  Raining outside, nothing to do.  “You haven’t called me in three days,” she complained.  And her husband, who is the picture of patience, said, “I thought I just called you yesterday.”  And he had.  “Well,” she replied, “it seems like three days!”

In the introduction to his Gospel, which we just listened to, John says that Jesus Christ is the Word by which God accomplishes all of creation.  That will be the rock of consolation to which I hope to return.

Words are dangerously limited.

Abraham Heschel, the Jewish Theologian, wrote of the peril of words.  A pious person, he wrote, is not distinguished by speaking many words.  If a poet and a pious person were to exchange views, the poet might say this about God: “All he lives, I say.”  And the pious person would know silently: “All he says, I live.”  His point is that words, by their very nature, have only limited meaning and value.  Words quite quickly run empty.

John spoke of Jesus with words that would appeal to Jewish and Judaeo-Christian believers as well as to make the Gospel meaningful to the minds of people formed by Greek patterns of thought.

The Greek word Logos carried a special meaning for people with an inherent understanding of Judaism.  In chapter one of Genesis God creates everything by word of declaration: “Let it be...” and all things are.  It is, however, in the second creation story in chapter 2 where the hands of God get dirty, fashioning the first person out of the clay of the ground.

For these reflections, I want to suggest that the dirty hands of God is our point of entry into John’s Gospel.  Jesus is God in the flesh.  Jesus is the Creative Word and the dirty hands of God.

By his use of the word Logos John also makes a cogent appeal to the Greek thinkers of his day, especially the Stoics.  In Stoicism the logos is the key to a special relationship between the divine and the human.

So John spun words of Jesus that were effective for a broad audience–people from a wide variety of social and cultural traditions.  His turns of phrase were meaningful to Judaism, Stoicism, Platonism and the followers of Jesus.  But words are dangerous, and the danger here was that a Greek might recognize John’s use of the term logos and quickly presume to understand everything about Jesus.

Or the danger might be that those with a background in Judaism might recognize the familiar notion of God’s word in Creation.  They might recall the joyfulness of Psalm 33: “By the word of the Lord the heavens and the earth were made...”  And, considering nothing more about Jesus, seriously miss the point.

Words are limited symbols, and we all know that the internal interpretive filters by which we must listen serve to limit their value even further.

I believe the sign is on Florence’s desk over at the station that says, “I know you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure that you realize that what you heard me say is not what I meant.”

John crafted his Gospel to speak meaningfully and persuasively to diverse groups of listeners, but perhaps not as diverse as those here in this part of Alaska.  Within this great diversity perhaps the primary work of the Church in Alaska today is to make the Gospel believable to those of us who think we understand all about Jesus already.  Because in Alaska we are witnessing mounting evidence of the serious disconnect between people of different traditions.  Urban and rural, Native and non-Native, rich and poor – whether it goes under the name of racism, or ignorance, or just plain blindness, there is a tiresome dailyness to the multitude of misunderstandings that divide the people of Alaska.  And we are all accomplices in the hurts that ensue.  We can say all kinds of nice-sounding things about God and about love, but what we do about these divisions is what finally matters.

I recently was in a conversation with a woman in one of the villages.  I was pressed for time because the airplane was landing, and she was trying to tell me something important and I was not getting it.  As the strain in our conversation increased I finally said, “I don’t understand.”  And in her frustration she replied, “No you don’t understand, Father, because you’re not Yup’ik.  You’ll never understand.”

She spoke a painful truth there.

We are all pained by the limited internal filters that we must use when we try to understand one another.

So what does all this have to do with KNOM?  KNOM is uniquely positioned to serve very diverse groups of people.  It is, however, a position of daunting challenge.  KNOM’s listeners are Innupiaq, Yup’ik, Siberian Yup’ik, Cup’ik, Athabaskan, and English.  And there are others.  Indeed, in the villages of my primary responsibility, KNOM competes for listeners with two stations that are programed for populations that mostly speak their Native language.

That’s to say something about the limits of KNOM’s reach and influence.  Nevertheless, words, limited though they be, are the primary instruments of KNOM’s work.  Our consolation is that we are in league with a God of dirty hands.  As followers of Jesus, our struggles ultimately are God’s ongoing acts of Creation and our limitations are, in the words of St. Paul, the means by which God’s strength and glory shines.  Our words, and our actions, are limited, and we are only honest when we surrender to that truth, but God’s creative Word in Jesus is never exhausted.  Our words are limited but that Word, in the spirit of the mission of KNOM, is not.

Limits aside, KNOM has, by the grace of God, earned a credible voice in the world of broadcast journalism, both in Alaska, and outside.  The many honors and awards –  well-deserved as they are – are significant not so much for the achievements they represent, as for the influence and opportunities they may afford.  It must be said, and humbly, that, having earned a credible voice, KNOM has a powerful potential to contribute significantly toward the healing of those divisions that we in Alaska endure.

Last night when Florence gave me a copy of this (written) program I was delighted to see that it included a copy of the KNOM mission statement.  I like it.  I don’t recall ever seeing it in print before, but I recognize it, because when I was a volunteer I remember being guided by this vision.  I also recognize the spirit of these words in the lives of the many KNOM volunteers and staff that I’ve worked with and listened to since.

It’s not my purpose here to critique the mission of KNOM, not to add anything to it, or certainly not to take anything away from it.  Rather, to note that, recalling the sign-on song of 30 years ago, the lyrics of Karen Carpenter are as poignant now as then: in league with the God of dirty hands, KNOM’s mission is only just begun.

(editor's note:  KNOM's first program, July 14, 1971 at 5PM, began with the song "We've Only Just Begun" by Karen and Richard Carpenter.

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