By Michael Cover
Words, words, words. Our world is full of words. Too many words: trivial, unthoughtful, covetous, duplicitous, seductive, false, noisy, absurd, arrogant, defensive, lathered in marketing, coy or snarky, on- or off-message, tweeting or gushing, loud or whispered, wise or foolish, forgotten or remembered. “We live in a wordy world,” Henri Nouwen once wrote — as if it were a diagnosis. And it is. Our ears and eyes are stuffed with words and they are killing us.
If this Lent what we need above all is a fast from words (“Can you not speak with me for just an hour?”), then Luke’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus is likewise a poultice placed upon our eyes and ears, to heal the wounds of sound. Luke alone of the Evangelists tells us that these things happened “after these words” (Luke 9:28), as if to say, “Enough already with language. Go up the mountain with the Lord and be quiet for a while. Think, for once, before you speak, and perhaps you will see something you had not expected.”
And what is it that Peter, John, and James perceive when they follow Jesus up the mountain and enter into the silence of Tabor? As when a traveler, who has been trekking through a forest and has not encountered another for a week, emerges into some clearing and sees with his unpolluted eyes a heron, a kingfisher, and an eagle lighting on three corners of a mountain lake, so Peter, John, and James encounter after their eight days of silence — speech, a colloquium. Not “words” as they are wont to hear them, loud, brackish, meaningless, prodigal — the dialect of Pandemonium — but speech, singular and purified, as with a fire that does not consume but creates. Words each chosen out of a thousand synonyms, strung lovingly together as jewels in a necklace in perfect sequence without one out of place. Words that no one could think to say in three lifetimes, had they not been revealed on the mountain, words that sound as distant thunder pealing and rebounding upon a storm-swept Mexican range in the high desert.
And, as Luke alone will tell us, they are speaking of his Exodus (Luke 9:31).
Exodus was the name of my wife’s grandfather’s boat. It was also the name of an ’80s thrash metal band. You see, dear reader, how meaningless all these noble words have become in our world full of words. If prayer is anything, it is a shedding of this cultural detritus, of this abuse of language, of pet names, nicknames, false names, unnames. We are all as infants in prayer, babbling to recover this dialect of heaven. It is a process of unlearning as much as possible, of digging deep enough beneath beach umbrellas and cigarette butts to find a world in which there is nothing but sand for miles and, somewhere along that invisible strand, a pearl of great price.
Exodus is a Latin word, borrowed from the Greek word exodos. It means “a road out,” “a way of departure.” It was the name given by Greek-speaking Jews to the second book of the Torah, because of the centrality of this event in the life and memory of the Jewish people. (In Hebrew, this book is simply called Shemot, or Names, after the second Hebrew word of Exod. 1:1.)
The two who hold this colloquy with Jesus are Moses and Elijah. Each of them in his life on earth had made an Exodus. Moses’ Exodus had been historical, horizontal, and communal: the Exodus of covenant, solidarity, and justice out of the land of slavery and oppression into a land flowing with milk and honey. Elijah’s Exodus had been of the more transcendent, vertical, and individual sort: ascent in a fiery chariot out of the morass of Israel’s political corruption into the heavenly sphere beyond human ken. In this Tabor colloquy, Jesus stands at the crux between Moses and Elijah, between the horizontal and vertical roads of departure. He is full of light — his death is full of light — and in this light the two prophets behold their figures rightly: their lives, which seemed perhaps full only of frustration and failure, are reconfigured in the uncreated light of Tabor and given meaning beyond their imagining.
As the colloquy begins to break up, Peter, one of the three who has journeyed up the mountain with Jesus, speaks. That is not his first mistake. Luke alone tells us that the purified words of Moses, Jesus, and Elijah had made Peter, John, and James sleepy (Luke 9:32) — much as they will later be weighed down by sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
And so, with this tiredness comes more words: Peter’s nonsensical words (“it is impossible to say just what I mean”), which cast into stark juxtaposition two unintelligible dialects. The ghosts (for that is now what they are to the dialect of earth) disappear, and Tabor is plunged into cloud and fear. And then from the cloud, the daughter of a voice, the Father of the Word, speaks:
“This is my son, the one who has been chosen. Listen to him” (Luke 9:35). Here the bat qol renders explicitly what had been only implicit at the theophany at the Jordan. The greater, coming Word was present to render all speech unjust, and to proclaim the coming of a gracious fire to purify all words. As the angel Gabriel foretold to the priest Zechariah, “you shall not be able to speak” (Luke 1:20), so now Peter, John, and James receive a well-chosen verbal imperative echoing Moses and the prophets: Shema‘ — “listen.” (Deut. 6:4).
In Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts of the Transfiguration, Jesus tells the disciples to tell no one (mēdeni eipēte / mēdeni … diēgēsōntai) what they have seen (Matt 17: 9; Mark 9:9-10). Luke’s Jesus utters no such imperative. Instead, in the third Evangelist’s verbal icon, we are told that Peter, John, and James “kept silent” of their own accord (autoi esigēsan). It seems that they had at last understood something of God’s mind. Jesus is himself the elect Word. “The rest is silence.”