Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Word Made Speechless? Transfiguration Sunday and a Lesson from James Baldwin

I am not sure how I missed this the bagillion times previously I read the story of the Transfiguration.

“He [Jesus?] did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”  
(Mark 9:6)
Sure, maybe the "he" is referring to Peter. I have mostly heard it preached that way. Peter's question about house-building on the mountain framed in retrospect as one of those speaking-before-thinking moments par for the course for this disciple. The exegesis of this text may even favor may.

But senus plenior* be damned. What if God-in-Flesh was speechless? What if the Word Incarnate was without words? What if Jesus was modeling presence before preaching, which we all could use a refresher course? What if this is why Jesus was the one to listen to, because the Way of the Christ was rooted not in truisms of power and more so in incarnations of love and grace? What if this is what made Jesus' words so powerful when they did come?

Sometimes fear warrants more than the language of our lips. Sometimes trauma transcends trite verbiage. Sometimes what we need is not found in statements and discourse, but is discovered in humble empathy and how we move compassionately in and through and for the world.
I think this is a large part of the message of the Transfiguration, transforming the focus of God’s people away from the traditions, doctrines, laws, and language of exclusion and illuminating the better way of love that leads through intentional actions of universal embrace. No, we cannot stay here in isolation, the story tells us. We must go down the mountain.
James Baldwin said it best when he wrote these words to his nephew, both who knew their fair share of terror and trauma, about his singular focus in life:
“For here you were, Big James, named for me- you were a big baby, I was not- here you were: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.”  
                                                               (My Dungeon Shook)
On this Transfiguration Sunday, shared with Valentines Day, may we find ways to love others hard, at once, and forever. May we know this kind of love, found in Jesus the Christ, which is not limited to our words and envelops each of us. This love sometimes needs not to be spoken at all, but always calls to gracious and hospitable actions in a world both beautiful and cruel. So go on down that mountain...and remember the tone of your presence often matters more than your preaching.
*"Plain reading" of the text, which doesn't actually exist. The pronoun is ambiguous and leaves room for mystery. Don't fear it. Dwell in it.

Image above was taken on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The hill in the distant is the traditional location of the Transfiguration.