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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

Getting your life in alphabetical order

Grandma Josephine, Queenie (who breaks a leg), the Gingerbread Man, the Whomping Willow, Hermione Granger and above all (she won a prize) Fatty from the Beano. Some of the characters my grandchildren dressed up as for yesterday’s World Book Day – although I’m not sure whether the Beano can legitimately be called a book. However, there was one controversial entry as one of my granddaughters dressed up as my favourite book, the Dictionary. "Not a character,"said her teacher, clearly a dictiophobe. I well remember my first dictionary. In bed with some childhood ailment – I was about eight – my father appeared with a gift, a largish red book. For no obvious reason, he brought me a dictionary and explained how it worked. “Remarkable book,” I thought. “Great vocab but weak plot.” Since then I have strangely enjoyed dictionaries. I share the sentiments of American comedian, Steven Wright: “I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.” I even saved up my pennies in the Lower Sixth to buy my own copy of the definitive concise OED, which stayed with me, battered and bruised, until it went in last year’s great book cull. For the beauty of the dictionary is its basic organising principle, alphabetical order. Right away as ailing child I immediately realised that to make a dictionary work, I had to learn the alphabet, which – if you think about it – is quite a task. 26 characters in random, no obvious order. I’m just relieved I didn’t’ grow up in Cambodia. The Khmer alphabet has 74 letters. And today, for most of us alphabetical order is a tool we use everyday and not just to find words in dictionaries. In fact, I’ve often wondered if those of us at the beginning of the alphabet, Aaron and Abraham for example, have an inbuilt advantage over those at the end of the sequence, Zacchaeus and Zachariah. It certainly helped at the annual Archdeacon’s Visitation from which sidespeople of the different churches were allowed to leave for home in the alphabetical order of their parishes. Great for us in Aughton, a pain for those from Westhead. So “How are you going to get a spiritual meaning out of the alphabet?” I hear you say. Just give me a few minutes. Actually the alphabet, the organising of words into a given order, has an important place in the Bible. Just say the word “Acrostic” – and you know what I’m talking about. You can look up in your dictionary – it will be near the beginning. You may know that the longest of the 150 Psalms is Psalm 119. In fact, it is one of several acrostic poems found in the Bible in that its 176 verses are divided into 22 stanzas, one for each of the 22 characters that make up the Hebrew alphabet. In other words, to understand the Psalm you really need to know the Hebrew text because each of the eight verses of each stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter – and the stanzas are in alphabetical order. In fact, most English translations make this clear by introducing each stanza with the Hebrew letter, even if hardly any of us knows what this means. They start with א Aleph and end with ת Taw. You can just imagine the writer as they reach the eighth stanza trying to work out which eight words can I use beginning with the letter ח Heth. Hard work – but they are making an important point, that every area of life is accountable to God. Well, if that’s the Old Testament, how much more in for the New Covenant! So the Bible culminates with John’s vision in the book of Revelation – and here three times we have the words: “I am the Alpha and the Omega” The first time it is God speaking: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:7). And again. “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 21:6). Finally it is the glorified Jesus speaking with divine authority: “Look, I am coming soon! . . I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22:13) Alpha and Omega? The first and final letters of the Greek alphabet, the language of the New Testament. Here the risen Jesus claims the authority over every word in the dictionary. In fact, now I think about it, I’ve come across a few people who have told me that on becoming Christians their entire vocabulary was transformed, the words they spoke abruptly changed. The truth of the matter is that Christ, as Son of God, is sovereign in every area of life. There’s no one before him and there is no one after him. Once you understand this, then everything changes and your life assumes a new order. It’s the alphabet of the Kingdom of God.

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