WHEN THERE ARE NO WORDS
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
January 3, 2016; Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C
Jeremiah 31:7-14; John 1:1-18
“There are no words.”
If you ever hear someone say that, it generally means one of two things. Either the person’s witnessing something of awe-inspiring beauty — standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, or gazing at some masterpiece in a museum — or the speaker is face to face with tragedy, their own or someone else’s. Bereavement, suffering, natural disaster. For such experiences there are no words.
I expect there are more than a few residents of the Midwest — people who live alongside the mighty Mississippi or one of its tributaries — who are saying that very thing today, as they watch the floodwaters lap up against their furniture.
Even for the most eloquent, there are times when words are simply not adequate to the task: the work of expressing emotion so raw, it seems to come from some place barely even human.
Sometimes there just are no words.
That’s not a problem God has ever had, according to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word.” In the beginning: before even the universe existed. An unimaginably vast void of nothingness. And silence: the dread silence.
It is a silence that seems to go on forever: or would, were there such a thing as time. Time has not yet been invented, because there is neither sun nor moon by which to track it. Nor is there any light whatsoever. No stars, no comets, no meteor showers. Just darkness, whose very existence seems questionable: for how can there be such a thing as darkness without some light against which to contrast it?
Before even the light appears, there is something else: a word. A word spoken without anyone to hear it. What did it sound like, that first word? Was it like that tale of deep mystery in Genesis 1, with the Creator bellowing out, “Let there be light”?
Was that the first word ever spoken? Spoken, perhaps, but not the very first word! The Word John describes here is not spoken at all, not in the conventional sense: “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
That Word is life itself: life that arises out of darkness, as a struck match blazes out its flaming glory. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
There was a co-creating principle — this Word, this logos in the Greek — who “was in the beginning with God.” Yet, as light pushed back darkness and the dry land emerged from the surging sea, this Word did not yet make his appearance. That was ordained for later: for a nondescript stable in a nondescript town, to a mother and father of peasant stock, two people utterly unremarkable in outward appearance.
It was in that place and time that “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…”
There are no words to describe such a wonder. Preachers and poets and musicians have tried, over the centuries — capturing and reflecting back a glimmer, here and there, of that glory — but none has been able to summon him up. How could they? For the Word is more than a force of nature. He is a force from a time before nature.
When you and I find ourselves in situations where there are no words — especially those times when friends or family are suffering, and we wish we could find some words, any words, that speak healing and hope — there is yet a Word on which we can rely: the living Word, Jesus Christ. He is the word we need to speak.
But how? I’m not talking about merely mouthing his name: taking another’s hand and saying, “You know, Jesus loves you,” before turning around and walking out the door. The words “Jesus” and “Christ” are not magic words.
No, something far more remarkable, greater than any magic, was taking place, as the young mother Mary gave birth on that frosty night, long ago. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us: not “the Word became a few syllables borne on our whispery breath.” This faith of ours means nothing if it, too, is not enfleshed: translated from the realm of ideas and emotions into loving action.
The great pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen has a riff on the word “consolation. It is, as he says:
“…a beautiful word. It means ‘to be’ (con-) ‘with the lonely one’ (solus). To offer consolation is one of the most important ways to care. Life is so full of pain, sadness, and loneliness that we often wonder what we can do to alleviate the immense suffering we see…. To console does not mean to take away the pain but rather to be there and say, ‘You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden. Don’t be afraid. I am here.’ That is consolation. We all need to give it as well as to receive it.”
[Bread for the Journey]
What I’m talking about, here, is a ministry of presence. I learned that phrase a long time ago in seminary, and have tried, in my own poor way, to practice it ever since. In those times when there are no words, when there’s nothing we can do to make everything all right — much as we’d like to — it’s important for us, who are the body of Christ in the world, to make sure we at least show up. Walking into a funeral home, or sitting by a friend’s hospital bed, it’s only natural to fret a little, asking ourselves over and over, “What can I possibly say? What words can I choose?” But it’s not about the words we say. It’s about the Word to whom we bear silent witness, entering into the sorts of situations he so often entered into, during his earthly life. Sometimes, in truth, you don’t need to say anything at all. It’s all about being there.
You never read, in the New Testament, about Jesus showing up at a sickbed or in a bereaved household and offering some quotable quote or airy platitude. There’s no record of him ever reciting a sentimental poem. No, the words he offers are terse and ordinary: “Your faith has made you well. Take up your bed and walk.”
Or, recall the story of Zacchaeus, that disreputable tax collector who had to climb a sycamore tree to get away from an angry crowd. Jesus neither chastises the crowd nor calls upon Zacchaeus to repent of his thieving ways. No, all he says is, “Zacchaeus, I’d be happy to accept your hospitality tonight.” It’s not what Jesus says. It’s what he does. He shows up. And that — to Zacchaeus, and even to the angry crowd who just can’t see the good in the little man — is what makes all the difference.
I can remember hearing about a program the English had, during the Battle of Britain, to keep some of their youngest citizens safe. In the worst days of the London Blitz, when Nazi bombs were raining down and terror was all around, the authorities offered mothers the opportunity to evacuate their young children from the center city and place them in safe homes out in the English, Welsh and Scottish countryside. (In most cases it was the mothers who had to make that decision; many of the fathers were away serving in the military.) Thousands of children became part of the evacuation program.
Most stayed with their host families for well over a year, in some cases even longer. The only regular contact they had with their mothers was by letter.
After the war, a team of child psychologists conducted a study of the mental health of these same children. They compared those who had lived in the country with others who had remained in the city. What they discovered surprised them. The children who’d continued to live with their parents in ruined neighborhoods, at great peril from the bombs, were psychologically more healthy, on the average, than those who’d been evacuated, who never heard the thrum-thrum of German bomber engines overhead.
Their host families were, for the most part, loving and caring. They did their best to make their young guests feel welcome. But the researchers found that, for these young children, there was simply no substitute for their mother’s presence.
When Jesus left his disciples for the final time to enter into heaven, he said to them, “Remember, I am with you always.” He made that promise real through the sacramental meal of bread and wine those disciples continued to share with each other, even in times of grave danger from persecution. It’s not the words of the liturgy that make the difference— “Take and eat, this is my body; take and drink, this is my blood.” It’s the real presence of Christ in the midst of his people.
When you or I show up, in times of trouble, to reach out a helping hand to others, there really are no words that can make it right. But it’s not about the words. It’s about being there, representing Christ to others. This is something we all can do: as long as we believe that the Word has become flesh and dwells among us still!
There’s a little poem by Ann Weems that speaks to this ministry of presence, to the difficulty of it — and to the importance of it. It’s called “I See Your Pain”:
I see your pain
and want to banish it
with the wave of a star,
but have no star.
I see your tears
and want to dry them
with the hem of an angel’s gown,
but have no angel.
I see your heart fallen to the ground
and want to return it
wrapped in cloths woven of rainbow,
but have no rainbow.
God is the One
who has stars, and angels and rainbows,
and I am the one
God sends to sit beside you
until the stars come out
and the angels dry your tears
and your heart is back in place,
Lord, we pray
that you would direct us to those in need:
and that you would equip us,
in our own individual ways,
according to our spiritual gifts,
to bear witness to the truth
that your Word is not only made flesh,
but dwells among us still. Amen.
Copyright © 2016 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.