Good Friday, 2nd April 21
It is said that at Auschwitz, the birds don’t sing. Auschwitz is one of the concentration camps the Nazis set up during World War II and for the three years it was operational nearly a million Jews were executed there plus over a hundred thousand other Central and Eastern Europeans. The horror can only be expressed in silence. It is instructive for us that when we gather to remember all those who die in war and on other occasions, we do so with two minutes’ silence. Words cannot express the horror of what we’re commemorating. Two of the world’s greatest musicians, Mozart and Debussy, are recorded as saying that music is not in the notes, the sounds themselves but in the silence between them. It is, of course, how harmony works with the gap between the notes being the interesting part arguably.
Silence is a good entity for us to explore on Good Friday, this day when we gather in Church and even more so than normal is the sound here only to be solemn. Here today there is to be no idle chatter, no ‘how are you’s, no ‘You alright?’ Just silence except for when we join in worship and say, “And with your spirit,” or “Amen’ or whatever phrase the Church gives us to say. So much of Christian worship, especially that which we see on YouTube or on the TV, is noisy, ecstatic and loud. The energy is thrilling, the words inspiring but what are we blocking out? Interestingly most of St Paul’s writings in the Bible about communal worship emphasise the need to stop talking, not to say more. He writes to the women not to talk and condemns those who who speak in tongues when no one is there to interpret (I Corinthians 14:28 & 34). The instinct is to talk; the Apostle corrects it with silence.
Jesus addresses the Father in His last words on the Cross, as we heard on Sunday: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 14:34) There seems to be no response from the Father: He is silent while the Son obediently carries out His will and saves the world, giving what we could not give ourselves. God seems all too often silent in response to suffering. But we must not assume silence is always the same as indifference. Sometimes, undoubtedly it is, for example when we fail to speak out when we see instances of abuse, or someone being hurt on the bus, or when we fail to call someone sick to see how they are, then these silences are undoubtedly absences and failures of love.
Some silence however is salvific. Consider the silence of the guards who have power to abuse the imprisoned who are vulnerable to them. This is silence that is treasured. The silence of the person about to die. This is silence that so often indicates confidence and an acceptance of what lies ahead. And interestingly, silence is the norm in Heaven. Cardinal Robert Sarah, who has spent most of his ministry in native Guinea on the West African Coast, recently wrote a book entitled the Power of Silence: Against the dictatorship of noise. It’s an interesting read and one of the things that got me thinking was his description of Heaven as being silent.
We probably think of Heaven as noisy. There’s the worship before the throne of the Lamb and we’re given in the Bible certain canticles of praise from this scene: for example “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for His judgements are true and just” (Apocalypse 19:2 quoted at Evening Prayer of Sundays). The Heavenly Host are described as singing praise to our God: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts,” they say in Isaiah 6:3, which is why we say it before the consecration of the Bread and Wine at Mass.
But we are also told of silence before that same throne in Apocalypse 8:1 “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in Heaven for about half an hour.” When in this last book of the Bible we read of something involving a half, the symbolism is that it is temporary. This silence of half an hour is interrupted, once incense has been put on the thurible, interrupted by repeated trumpet blast. The silence is only temporary at this stage because the Kingdom of God has not yet fully arrived. St John is writing to describe the immensity of Heaven using words and they will fail in their fragility in trying to pin down the indescribable. It’s only in Chapter 22, the final chapter, that the dwelling of God is finally among men and women and St John needs to return to normal life, the vision over.
Cardinal Sarah writes: “In heaven, speech does not exist. There on high, the blessed communicate with each other without any words. There is a great silence of contemplation, communion and love.” We will know this silence when we are with those we are closest to. If you’re with acquaintances or work colleagues there would be an awkwardness if you were sitting together, not doing anything else and there was silence. But when we’re with those we’re closest to, the silence is not problematic because there is a silent communion of love. So it is in Heaven.
Orchestrating silence is difficult though. Even once we’ve turned the TV off and assuming the neighbours aren’t playing loud music, it’s still difficult. Even here in Church when everyone else is quiet we then have to empty our hearts and minds of the noise we find there: “Oh I must do that … Oh look at that mess I need to sort out … Oh I miss so-and-so … Gosh, it’s lovely to see her.” It takes effort but we then need to plunge to a deeper silence where we’re exposed to new noise, noise we might have thought we had successfully suppressed. Noises from our past that may then come to surface once there is space. The soul must navigate beyond these to discover the silence where we can communicate perfectly with the Saviour, on whose pierced heart our names are written.
St John of the Cross wrote that God spoke one Word, and of course that one word was His Son, the Word made Flesh. That was sufficient. So when God seems silent we are invited to spend time communing with His Son on the Cross. This is why God sent His Son: to speak words of forgiveness, words of hope, words of justice, words of condemnation. They’re all said on the Cross. God is not silent when our child is dying. God is not silent when we’ve done something horrendously wrong. He’s said all He needs to say on the Cross.
As we gaze on the Cross we see the perfect communication of Mary, who stands next to the Cross, with her Son. Protestant critics will often say the fact that not much is said about Mary in the Gospels shows she was unimportant. On the contrary, it is the manner of those who love the Lord most that they will be with Him, but not necessarily drawing much attention to themselves. Present, but not fussing. Worshipping, but not shouting. Such is Mary at she stands next to the Cross. Nothing she says is recorded. It was not important. Yet we can be sure in her silence she is in communion with her son as a that sword prophesied by Simeon pierces her soul.
Let’s reach new depths in our silence today that we may be penetrated by the horror of the Cross. Whenever God is accused of being silent let us point us others to this moment when God speaks once and for all and very clearly: sin’s power is quashed, God’s love indisputable. The social media age where those who are loudest end up being the most influential will come crumbling down as the still small voice of calm calls all souls to boast in the Cross alone and the One we love who hung there.