It’s a word we usually use for the horrific, all the atrocities, the truly abhorrent – “unspeakable.”
I remember very well watching the Merchant Ivory film Maurice many years ago when the young, gay Oxford student (or was it Cambridge?) was sitting in his Greek tutorial. As the students sat there dutifully translating Plato, the tutor suddenly interrupted one of them and said, “omit reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.” (We all know what that was!)
I was an out and, I thought, proud gay man when I watched that film. But that scene made a lasting impression. What I do (or want to do) is “unspeakable,” really? I can think of lots of other things that qualify for that description – suicide bombers, genital mutilation, genocide, starving children – but two people of the same sex loving each other is not among them.
There’s one more thing I would add to the list of the truly unspeakable, and Christians will celebrate it this weekend: the Incarnation of God’s Word.
Both Christian theology and Christian worship tend to be rather wordy. So much so that it’s easy to forget that those “shepherds abiding in their fields by night” did not rush to Bethlehem to find a doctrine. Or that those three eastern sages didn’t follow a star from their distant homeland in search of a book or an institution. The angels who startled those shepherds and the star that guided those sages announced instead the birth of a flesh-and-blood human being.
John’s gospel declares that God’s Word made all that is. But when that Word wanted to get our attention, it chose human flesh to do it. When God “speaks,” the speech is flesh; wonderfully, beautifully, irreducibly unspeakable.
To be clear, I love words. I love speaking and I love writing. But there are some moments, some things, some occasions that simply defy speech. They are quite literally “unspeakable” – not because they are horrific, but because they transcend entirely our verbal skills. I mean: the gentle touch of a lover; the soft embrace of an elderly parent; the poignant weight of a dog’s head resting on a lap; that twinkle in the eye; children skipping rope; the taste of freshly whipped cream on the tip of a tongue.
To that list I would add this: the incarnate word of God.
I will continue on in my vocation as a theologian by speaking and writing lots of words, but I will try always to say that what matters most cannot be spoken. It can only be lived, encountered, touched, and loved in the flesh. That’s what this weekend is all about.
For some years now I have tried to break out of my prose world at least once a year and try my hand at verse, hoping that perhaps poetic speech might evoke better the remarkably unspeakable moment that Christians try to celebrate at Christmas. Poetic speech is, of course, still speech. But it does carry a bit more potential to transcend the prison of words than prose does.
I believe the Occupy Wall Street Movement does something similar. It’s one thing to write letters to Congress. It’s quite another to pitch a tent and incarnate one’s protest. Perhaps Christians can learn something from that impulse, which is actually quite ancient. When John declared that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, the Greek means more literally, “pitched a tent among us.”
With all of that in mind, I offer here my 2011 attempt to break free of prose, even for a short while, and pay homage to the unspeakable. With this offering come my very best wishes to all for, at long last, peace on earth and good will among all people in this holiday season!
Few have been this preoccupied with tents
since you recklessly pitched one among us.
I would have chosen something more stable,
not quite so porous and vulnerable,
safe, secure, readily significant,
and missed the whisper of evening breezes,
the restless susurration of canvas,
and that one appearing in the shadows,
light flinting off flesh in a fading sun,
fireflies dancing in the night,
rousing my longing
to step into your own