Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Silence of the Word

During Holy Week, we hear: "The Lord has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak a word to the weary, a word that will rouse them." (Isaiah 50:4-7)

Throughout Jesus' public ministry, we hear him speak again and again a word to the weary to rouse them: "Blessed are the poor in spirit," "Go, your faith has saved you," "The kingdom of God is at hand". We probably all have a list of our favorites, words that have sustained us, inspired us, impelled us. As the evangelists note, Jesus spoke these words with authority, not simply because he had the prophet's well-trained tongue, but because he himself is the Word in human flesh. When he spoke a word of healing, the sick were cured; when he spoke a word of command, demons were driven out; when he spoke a word of forgiveness, the burden of sin was lifted. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council claims that when the gospel is read in the Christian assembly, it is Christ who speaks. His words continue to heal, to liberate from evil, to forgive.

We could sit back now and bask in consolation, but the prophet doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, " I gave my beard to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting." (Isaiah 50:6) After Jesus’ arrest, his words grow sparse. He limits himself to a few stark statements of the one truth for which he stands, but he does not explain or justify them. Otherwise, to his questioners, his tormentors, his mockers, his executioners, he says nothing at all. He gives himself into their hands without a word of protest or self-defense. Ultimately, he ceases to speak at all. On the cross, the Word “goes down into the silence,” a phrase the psalmists use for death (cf. pss 92, 103, Grail translation). What an incredible triumph: evil has silenced the Word itself.

Holy Saturday is the day of great silence. The second reading from Matins quotes an ancient homily for Holy Saturday: “Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.”

I am reminded again of the final scene in the film On the Beach, when the last human being has been snuffed out by the silent spread of the nuclear fallout from the last world war. (See the posting “Bells”, November 17, 2007) In that silence, one hears the flapping of a banner in the wind, the rustle of crumpled papers blowing through the streets, the clanking of a bottle driven against a curb—but one does not hear the one sound sought: the sound of the human voice. And one knows that cherished sound will never be heard again.

The silence of Holy Saturday is not that silence. It is the silence of expectation. We know the end of the story, and we know it is not the final fadeout of the sealed and desolate tomb. In that tomb, life stirs. Tradition speaks of Christ’s descent into the realm of the dead, where all humanity awaits deliverance. I like to think that in every place where the death of the human spirit has imposed the dreadful silence of despair, Christ has gone before us and awaits us, stirring up new life even as the old life falls silent. No matter how great our darkness, Christ has been there before us, and is still there with us, kindling the spark that can explode into the great fire of Easter. We may not see it; we may not feel its warmth; but it is there—the silence of death has not snuffed out the human voice forever.

Tonight, in all our churches, we will sing peals of “alleluias”. They may or may not come from hearts reborn. Life doesn’t always follow the church calendar. There will be people at the Easter services who have tasted the bleak darkness but not yet the light; there will be people whose hearts are keeping vigil with loved ones dying even as we proclaim the victory of life; there will be people who know for sure that the tomb is real but aren’t so sure about the resurrection. It isn’t just the flame of our little candles we are asked to pass on to one another. Whether we are living Easter or still mourning Good Friday, we reach out with the inextinguishable light of Christ and hold hands with one another in the night. “Alleluia” is the sound of faithful people daring to whistle in the dark because, once upon a time, a handful of faithful women rushed back from the tomb with the news, “He is not there! He is risen!” And a handful of sorrowing disciples believed them. And they all passed on the living Word.
©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

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