According to St. John, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. He is God’s Word, the full and perfect expression of the mind of God--God’s thought. It is by that Word that the world was created, and it is that Word that is the life of the world, and the light of all people.
Now, quite appropriately, being the Word of God, Jesus is a teacher. The prophet Isaiah declared that the Servant of God who would save Israel would have the tongue of a teacher, and with a word he would sustain the weary with a word. So, Jesus does, as we see throughout all the Gospels. He taught about the inner side of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount. He taught his disciples that God is love and he taught them to love one another as he loved them. He also fiercely criticized falseness and hypocrisy. The psalmist rightly declares that the sum of God’s word is truth and that the unfolding of his words gives light. That is what the Word made flesh did.
But it is not just in speaking out loud that this Word exists and has its power. The Word echoes often most powerfully in silence. It does so in the creation itself. The psalmist says that “the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament declares his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” Yet, he adds, “there is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet, their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” That voice is surely the voice of the Word of God. The Word of God also is spoken in the Messiah’s silence. Isaiah, that unparalleled witness to the coming of the Messiah tells Israel that its savior will not be a man of force and power. “He will not cry or lift his voice, or make it heard in the street.” In silent suffering he would save the world. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that was led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
This silence of the Word, this silent speaking of the Word, is nowhere more apparent than in St. Matthew’s account of the crucifixion. Already at his trial, Jesus has remained silent and refused to answer the charges against him. From then on, he says nothing until his final cry of abandonment when he breathes his last. Now, there is plenty of speech during the crucifixion, but it is not his, and it is all a misuse of words. The officials, the people, the soldiers, the thieves, do not use words to tell the truth, or to give light, or to express love. There are no words in the account of the crucifixion that create; the only words that are spoken are meant to humiliate and destroy. Those words mocked him and tormented him. The Romans put words on a sign over his bloody head: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews,” words of bitter sarcasm, although they had no idea how true those words really were. Passersby derided him, throwing words of grace and hope back in his face, saying, “If you are the Son of God, save yourself!” Or, in effect, “Hey, big man, you wannabe king of the Jews, you who spoke in God’s name, where is God now?” In Matthew, there is no good thief, just two bad ones who also taunt him. Imagine getting trash-talked by trash. You don’t go much lower.
All this is what the Romans meant to happen in crucifixion. It was not just a painful punishment. It was a method, a very successful method, of reducing a person to nothing, making him appear ridiculous, of teaching the world a lesson of who had the power of life and who didn’t. It was a successful way of running an empire.
Yet, in all of this he didn’t open his mouth. And in that silence, in the word of silence, he had his power to save. It is by that silence that we are saved.
A few years ago, the British church historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote a book titled Silence: A Christian History. It is a fascinating and somewhat unprecedented look at Christian history, not from all the times of making a joyful noise to the Lord, or all the words that have been spoken or written, but from the role that silence has played in that history. I would dare say that MacCulloch had great insight in doing this, for silence in Christianity is not just the spaces between the words, but because of Jesus’s own silence, especially his silence during the crucifixion, it is essential to our faith. But, how it is comes in some very different ways.
For example, as many of the earliest Christians discovered, silence is important, because it is important to listen to God. Many think prayer is unbroken request and praise. The most powerful prayers, though, may well be the ones where no word of our own is ever spoken out loud, the ones when we listen for the silent word of the one crucified. This was something that was discovered by the men and women of ancient Christianity, who fled the chaotic noise of the morally incoherent Roman Empire to go deep into its deserts so that for once they might hear. The search for silence over the next several centuries was crucial for the development of Europe, as monks tried to escape further and further out. Each time they founded a monastery, towns sprang up around them. Their search for silence was really the civilizing force of Europe.
That is one example, but the importance of silence comes in many, many ways. It is a way of listening. Jesus himself sought silence out frequently during his ministry when he went off by himself to pray. But as a way of listening, it is also a way of obedience. Christ’s silence on the cross was a matter of his simple obedience to his mission. There was no longer anything to say out loud. There was just the suffering.
That was surely because of another kind of silence, the silence of God himself. Where was God in all this? The Father was absent, a point that Jesus would soon make in his only spoken word on the Cross in the Gospel of Matthew. What could one do? Argue with God? Complain? Possibly. But it was Christ’s mission to love a world and to show it a way to God. How could you do that when God was absent? Well, he, in his silence, showed us that it is possible if you are patient, and endure, and wait on God’s will. That silent obedience is something that can save a world.
That is not a counsel to passivity, or acquiescence to bad treatment. It is a command to speak the word of love, as Christ did silently on the cross, in all instances of life.
Here it is worth pointing out a distinctive feature of MacCulloch’s book. He treats the important spiritual dimension of silence, but he also raises the ugly specter of the silence that has often prevailed in the face of injustice. Think, he bids us, of the church’s great silence for so many years in the face of the horrendous instances of clergy sexual abuse of children and teenagers. There, silence was enforced. Think also of other reprehensible instances of silence – of tolerating racism, of not addressing the systematic violence that pervades too much of our social lives. Think, too, of all the silence that has come about because of shame, of trying to hide something – sexual identity; unpopular views; sin, too. There, silence does not seem so good. There, it seems that words need to be spoken and spoken loudly.
But I would counsel that those words will not change anything, at least not very deeply, until we have learned something about Christ’s silence, for until we have quieted ourselves and learned how to use the silence of listening and the silence of loving obedience to God’s will, we will only contribute to a noisy moral chaos, albeit with noisy voices that would seek righteousness.
For one will not ever understand suffering until one has learned silence and to hear the unexpressed hearts of those who have been silenced. Let me give you an instance.
When the French philosopher Simone Weil had to flee Paris with her parents in the face of the invading Nazis in 1939, she ended up for a time in Marseille in the free zone of France. While there, as one who was ever interested in justice, she frequently went to watch court cases being tried. French justice is basically the same as ours. It is an adversarial system, with lawyers and judges. Everybody gets representation. People get to tell their stories to the judge. Seems fair, doesn’t it? Yet, in watching these cases, she discovered, how the most striking fact about procedural justice is the astounding degree to which a defendant is not heard at all. The judges, the lawyers are all fine talkers. They are well educated. They banter, they offer pleasantries, they make jokes at each other’s expense, but especially at the defendant’s expense. The defendant doesn’t have the words to talk back. He will be humiliated and silenced. His real story nobody really cares about. And so, there is an unheard cry. All the talk actually silences; the very opportunity and demand to talk silences. Too many people walk out of the halls of justice feeling one thing above all: they have not been heard.
Now, we might well assume that the answer is to find some way to give voice to the voiceless, or to speak loudly on their behalf. Perhaps, at some point. But what is first needed is not some thing you need to give to them, it is what needs to be taken away from all those who are doing all the talking that keeps people from being heard. What is needed is to be quiet in order to hear what is in them; it is not to try to give them words, words that they might not understand anyhow. What is needed is to give up one’s own words in order to hear them. Fighting words with words will not work. Keeping silence may be the only thing that does.
When Christ was crucified, he was like a lamb led to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. He did not argue with those who mockingly called him “King of the Jews,” trying to set them straight on what that really meant. He did not try to set the passersby straight, or point out the pathetic irony of the sarcasm of the two bandits. That silence he maintained was not passivity, even though as one crucified, he was pinned quivering like a butterfly to a tray. That silence, which was born of his love of an absent Father, and of obedience to that Father’s will that humanity might be saved, that silence was a profound resistance to stupidity, and cruelty, and sin. To argue, to speak out would have only encouraged those who didn’t know what they were saying.
But even more deeply, that silence was also a matter of standing with all of those whose voice had been taken away, people such as all those that the Romans had crucified before him, and all those who in the future would be forced into silence, or ignored, or made fun of. But go even deeper than that. It was more than just standing with them. It was a matter of already being in that place to greet them when they, too, were cast into afflicted silence. It was a matter of, from that place and from eternity, silently speaking a word of love to those who had not felt love, and even to those who had sinned and destroyed love. It was a matter of silently obeying and being God’s eternal love, the word that is in the voice goes out through all the earth and the words that go to the end of the world.
At the conclusion on his short novel A River Runs through It, Norman McLean says words that are beautiful but that I have never entirely understood. But I think they have something to do with this eternal love that was perfected on the cross, and the silent love that radiates from it from the beginning of the creation to its fulfillment in the kingdom. It goes this way: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
I am haunted by the flow of silence, the rushing, eternal silent love that suffered and died, and yet saves us all. I am haunted by the words and sounds of silence.