“I’m only 19, but my mind is old, and when things get for real, my warm heart turns cold.”
I heard these words at 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday night while sitting at home attempting to read my notes from psychology. These are the words of Prodigy (one half of rap duo Mobb Deep). Why do these words matter? What is Prodigy trying to say? These words of his come from what is easily the grittiest song on the entire album. From beginning to end, the song speaks of the reality of death and alienation built into the fabric of the Queen’s Bridge housing projects in New York City.
Prodigy wrote his lyrics twenty years ago, when he was my age. The world of the young Prodigy and the world that Ilive in couldn’t more different. I don’t live with the horrifying reality of gunshot wounds. He did. Dead bodies aren’t a regular sight for me. They were a regular sight for him. Yet even with these differences, his expressions of pain and torment have shaped my imagination over the years. And although I don’t share his context, I have seen the marks that the world can leave upon our bodies. When these marks break young flesh it is sometimes fatal.
When I was in high school we had suicide and mental illness awareness day once a year. Why? Because some wounds cannot be hidden for a long time, or at all. While this particular problem may seem exceptional, it flows from the increasing fragility of youth. In youth, we have our world-constructing experiences, from learning to speak and walk to coming to terms with our bodies and the changes of our bodies. For some of us, this means coming to terms with the hostile space in which we must grow into our bodies.
Why emphasize the body? We know of no other kind of life. A life that includes the warmth of our being together and the warmth of a bullet wound. Most importantly for the theologian , the body is the place where God becomes speakable. God has a history. In Jesus Christ, God was young. In Jesus Christ, God is glorified and wounded.
While the questions and the struggles of youth are a dilemma faced by everyone, different groups of people will deal with this in a number of different ways. How can those who have been gathered by the Gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus speak to the problem at hand? Does the “word of the cross” have something to say to those faced with growing pains? Is there space within the wounded and glorified flesh of Jesus Christ for those whose experience of youth has been marked by loss, displacement, and anxiety?
In a lecture on the German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann, the American theologian Carl Michalson says we need, “to question and interrogate the scriptures with the questions of our historical existence and to hear the response of the text as the answer is called faith.” It is with the wounds of our lives open and salted that we can explore the body whose wounds will forever remain.
It is in the transfiguration as told by St. Matthew that I find the key. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matt 17:2). The transfiguration is the paradigmatic statement of the incarnation. In the God-man Jesus Christ , we see humanity before God and God before humanity. The glory of Christ’s transfiguration is the statement of the unchanging goodness of his flesh and ours in his. There is no humanity prior to humanity in Jesus Christ, and so for those youth who find their bodies in spaces where their bodies are ‘out of place,’ where they are objects of maltreatment and hatred, the goodness of their bodies is never in question.
This transfigured body is not the body of triumphalism. This Jesus who has been transfigured is the one who is crucified. Those youth who have been displaced and thrown outside the gates of the city will find him also outside the city at Golgotha. The glorified Jesus is nowhere to be found without his wounds. God’s history contains both life and death, and it is in this history that the young can grow. In Jesus Christ God was young.
“When God Was Young” is part of the new Via Media column, addressing issues of theology for people in the Church and in the community.