For the past few weeks, we have travelled through the season of Epiphany with the theme, “The Words We Say.” In the rhythm of our life together, the season of Advent fills us with anticipation for the experience of Christmas – the birth of Christ – as the Word becomes flesh and dwells in the midst of us. Christmas flows into the season of Epiphany – “epiphany,” a word that comes from the Greek root meaning “to make manifest.” So we’ve spent time together, in this season, thinking of how the words we say – about God and about our life together with God – become manifest in the lives we lead.
Transfiguration brings us to the place where the words run out. In the flashes of light, in the shadow of a numinous cloud, with the sky opened up and a voice from heaven saying, “Listen!” – the disciples stand there on this mountain with Jesus, and they have absolutely no idea what to say. There are not words enough.
Transfiguration reminds us that all the words we say about God and about Jesus are provisional and incomplete. Each word gives us a glimpse. It may last, but a moment. It may warm and light our lives for a season. Or forever. But each word – each glimmer – each glimpse is but a fraction of the truth of God – a truth, the whole of which, is so much larger than our hearts and minds can ever fully grasp. It’s why we need each other. Each of us brings a Word, and we try to make sense of them together. It’s why we travel together over time – as each new day brings a new word – the promise of new meaning that brings new life.
Transfiguration brings us to the place where the words run out, and invites us into the holy experience of silence. The silence between the words. The place where we meet God in ways that words simply cannot express.
On this mountaintop of transfiguration – midway through the Gospel of Mark – Peter, James, and John find themselves in the place where words run out. Now, we should note that even before they get to the top of the mountain, as they start their climb, they are already bewildered. They’ve just had that experience with Jesus that you may remember: Jesus asks them who others say he is – they report, “Some say Elijah; some say one of the other prophets.” And then Jesus says, “Who do you say I am?” And Peter responds, “You are the Christ.”
Then Jesus speaks plainly, telling them that the Son of Man – the Human One – will be brought before the chief priests and the elders and the teachers of the law – and he will be killed – and after three days rise again from death. And Peter, says, “No, no, that’s not what I meant – not that Christ.” And Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan, you do not have in mind the things of God. The one who follows me must take up their cross.” Words that convey bewildering truth.
And after six days, Jesus takes them up this mountain. And there, Jesus is transfigured – transformed in appearance – his clothes become a dazzling white – a brightness beyond our knowing – and all of a sudden, they see Jesus walking and talking with Elijah and Moses – in the midst of the Law and the Prophets. Seeing this, Peter suggests that they build booths – scripture says, because Peter did not know what to say.
And a cloud appears – and envelopes them – and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” And then the glimpse is gone. It’s just them. On the mountaintop. Just them. And Jesus.
This is a theophany. Theophany comes from the same Greek root as “epiphany” – to make manifest. “Theophany” is God made manifest – a direct experience of the divine. And it’s not the only theophany in the Gospel of Mark. Remember Jesus’s baptism: Jesus is coming out of the waters, and the heavens are torn open, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”
And we haven’t gotten there yet, but it will happen at the end of the gospel of Mark, too – at an empty tomb – where a young man in baptismal clothes tells the women that Jesus (who was crucified) is not there, in the tomb – he’s gone on ahead to meet them in Galilee. And the women stand at the empty tomb, as the Gospel of Mark tells it, “trembling and bewildered, and they say nothing to nobody.” There are no words.
In each of these moments in the Gospel – they, we experience God directly – in the waters of baptism – on a mountain top enveloped in a cloud of transfiguration – and at an empty tomb signifying life beyond death – and with each experience – they, we have no words.
Now to be sure: There are important words being revealed here –
· Jesus so fully human that he glows with the light of God –
· Jesus, walking among the law and the prophets – Elijah and Moses – and then walking with us even further,
· Jesus, God’s son, Beloved –
· Jesus, who will die and yet rise again beyond death –
· more light, more love, more life – than we have ever imagined.
There are important words made manifest here, and the only way to take them in – is silence.
And that may not come easy – for Peter, or for us. We are people of the Word – people of words. Our tradition is one grounded in the words of Scripture, brought to life in the living Word – Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh in us. Our worship and our prayers are full of words – good and worthy words –
· words of praise and gratitude – as we sing and shout and lift our voice –
· words of lament and hurt – as we cry out for healing –
· words of contrition, as we see as if for the first time the realities of our world – the systems we inhabit – and our part in it all –
· words of turning again – every day a brand new day – this is the day – grace abounds.
Our prayers and our lives are full of words.
You may have experienced times like that in your life, those moments, when there are no words. Moments of awe at a sunset more beautiful than you have ever seen. Moments of loss too deep to speak. Moment of tenderness – a hand to hold when you need it most. Those places where the words run out.
There are deep traditions – Christian traditions and beyond Christian traditions – that include in our experience of God and the Holy – space for silence and reverence and awe. The silence beyond words. Prayer beyond our knowing – only our intention to be present with God in response to God’s intention to be present with us.
In her book, Joy Unspeakable, Barbara Holmes writes of this out of the communal contemplative traditions of the Black church – silence and shouting and song – describing contemplative moments as “a spiritual event that kisses the cognitive, but that will not be enslaved to its rigidities.” A space of freedom in God. Howard Thurman speaks of it as the practice of “centering down” – “to sit quietly and see one’s self pass by” – to listen for “the sound of the genuine” deep within– an experience of God who is at the same time vast and limitless, and intimate and personal.
Kathleen Norris – a Presbyterian writer who has lived for long stretches in Benedictine communities – describes the importance of silence in the rhythm of monastic communal life. Benedictine communities gather at regular times for prayer during the day, and they read together the Psalms, with long spaces between them. No processing or explaining. Silence in between the words. The silence opens up space to experience the full power of the Psalms, as she says, “to let the words wash over me.”
Kathleen Norris also teaches poetry in elementary schools. She tells of one day, one classroom where she was talking about metaphor to 4th graders, when the teacher warned her, “That’s not a subject they’ve studied,” to which Norris replied – “Oh, they’ll know how to do it, they just don’t know the word for it yet.” She describes the epiphanies that emerged that day – one 4th grade poet who wrote that the overnight snowfall was “just like Jesus glowing on a mountaintop.”
Even when we don’t yet know the words, when the words wash over us, the silence between the words can open up for us space to experience the holy.
So I’m going to practice what I’m preaching here. And I’m going to shut up for a bit. I’m going to stop talking, and invite us into a shared, communal experience of silence. Just 3 minutes. 3 minutes for us to sit together with each other in silence with the shared intention of being present with God.
This is prayer – not a prayer of words – but a prayer of intention:
Praying in Silence -- A Breath Prayer
· I invite you to settle in to your space.
· Become aware of your surroundings, the place you inhabit.
· Become aware of your body. What are you feeling? Any aches. anywhere you are tense and tight?
· When you’re ready, I invite you to bring your attention to your breathing – your breathing in, your breathing out. The breath that God has breathed into us – breathing in, breathing out.
· In just a moment, we will pray our intention to rest in God’s presence. You may just want to say, “God, I’d like to spend some time with you.”
· When distractions come – and they will – thoughts, worries – I invite you to let them go and return to our intention by returning to your breathing – your breathing in, your breathing out.
· Holy God, may we rest and abide in your presence for a while.
[ENTER INTO 3 MINUTES OF SILENCE]
When Kathleen Norris brings poetry into elementary school classrooms, she sometimes begins by opening up a time for the kids to make noise and then a time for them to make silence. You can imagine the time for making noise. She raises her hand and invites them to make noise – as much as they can – to shout and stomp and bang on desks – until she lowers her hand. Then, she raises her hand again, and invites them to be as silent as they can possibly be. Together, to make silence. She says we’d be surprised. The children become so still that “silence becomes a living presence in the classroom.”
Then, she asks them to write about it. Poems. Here is what one class wrote:
· One young poet said: “Silence is me sleeping waiting to wake up.”
· Another: “Silence is like spiders spinning their webs; it’s like a silkworm making its silk.”
· And one little girl wrote:
“Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.”
On that mountain of Transfiguration, there were important Words made manifest. There was the reverberating echo of “you are the Christ,” and of Jesus saying the Human One will be killed and then rise on the third day. There was the divine glow of Jesus – a bright glimpse of God dwelling in the fullness of humanity. There was the voice from the cloud: “This is my Son. The Beloved. Listen to him” – and then there was silence.
Just them. And Jesus –
truth bigger than words can convey
love deeper than our knowing
life stronger even than death.
In that moment of Transfiguration,
there was nothing left to say,
and everything left to live.
© 2021 Scott Clark
Notes for further reading and reflection:
Particularly as we honor Black History Month this month, I want to say a bit more, lift up, and commend for further reading two of the scholars I quoted in the sermon.
Howard Thurman was a significant spiritual figure in the Civil Rights Movement, and spiritual advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His work centers our spiritual life in a vital life of engagement and activism. I read someone once say he was “a mystic with his sleeves rolled up.” His writings are many. For a good introduction to his work, I recommend “A Strange Freedom”: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life. Perhaps his best known work is Jesus and the Disinherited, and Meditations from the Heart offers powerful devotional reflections.
In Joy Unspeakable, Dr. Barbara Holmes describes the contemplative life as experienced in the life of the Black Church. I’ve quoted her in this sermon with reference to some of what she says about “silence,” but I should be clear that her thesis is that the contemplative experience is so much broader than just silence and embraces shouting and singing and silence.
And as a further note, please be aware that this week offers the opportunity to view the new PBS documentary, “The Black Church,” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., this Tuesday and Wednesday at 9pm on KQED.
Footnotes:  My reading of this text is informed, particularly, by Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1989); the Lectionary Commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008); and Melinda Quivik, Commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-92-9-5  See Barbara Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017 (2d ed.)).  See id. and Howard Thurman, Meditations from the Heart.  Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1996).  Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1998).