When words fail...
If you were to speak about a gorgeous sunset on the Pacific coast of Canada what would you say? Once you realize that you have fallen in love, how ever would you put that into words?
On the other hand, what do people do when something terrible happens? Don’t they oftentimes stand there completely stunned and mute? They might say, afterwards, “I was at a loss for words” or “words failed me”.
Despite being the second book of the New Testament, the Gospel of Mark was the earliest of our complete written Gospels. It is an exercise in “explanatory language” designed to be read by Christians rather than “persuasive language” meant to be read by unbelievers (that was the job of people on the ground; of preachers, catechists, evangelists and deacons). It was an exercise in using Greek words to describe what people had first seen, heard and felt - up close and personal – of making things explicable to a new generation.
Mark’s style is terse. His sentences are short. One thing follows another. This happened. Immediately the other thing happened. Which led, straightaway, to that other event. In the middle of Mark’s Gospel, however, amid stories lending themselves to a written record of events, we find the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the slopes of Mount Tabor. It has been described as a piece of John’s Gospel transplanted into the midst of Mark. The veil is pulled to one side for an instant. Glory is revealed. An ordinary hillside becomes a doorway to heaven - open and mysterious. It is not for nothing that generations of painters have treated it as their subject for the episode evokes a visual tableau. Even the words are the slaves of the visual picture which arises in the heads of the reader. Christ is there at the center. See him set amid other figures from the Biblical narrative. The movement was like this. The light changed like that. If you think, says Mark, that words will sum it up, dear reader, just look at poor Peter for whom words failed utterly. In response to his insecurity Peter began to babble – desperately trying to fill in the insecurity of the visual moment with mere words.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and
one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
What struck you about Notre Dame Cathedral or the Grand Canyon or a piece of art or for that matter the opening of Brahms’ First Symphony (auditory, and not visual, but which has no words). What on earth would you need to say to explain your feelings when you watch your little granddaughter? You’d just point. Isn’t it obvious?
Do these things not remind you that the chain of time in which you live – the ordinary things of earth made of flesh and stone and light point to something beyond the ordinary and that to be there in that Presence shining through the ordinary is perfectly sufficient, thank you very much.