The silence speaks still
This Sunday we celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. Do you remember why Zechariah had been struck dumb?
They made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him called. You remember why Zechariah had been struck dumb? The beginning of Luke’s Gospel tells the story. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were exemplary people, living a good and holy life in the hill-country of Judea. They would have liked to have had children but had not been able to do so. They still prayed for a miracle. One day, Zechariah’s priestly duties took him up to Jerusalem and into the Holy of Holies to offer incense. While he was making the offering, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his prayers had been answered and that the Elizabeth would shortly have a son who was to be called John. You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.
Gabriel foretold that John would do very great service during his life: converting many to God; reconciling estranged families; bringing back the disobedient to the good life; preparing the people for the Lord. Gabriel also predicted that John would be remarkably self-disciplined and even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Zechariah, standing in the Holy of Holies, being addressed by the Archangel Gabriel bringing wonderful news from God reacted…sceptically. How will I know that this is so? Zechariah the doubter was struck dumb.
It is best to accept without question good news brought by archangels. And now because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day the things I have predicted occur.
So this is why Zechariah could not speak. He had been afraid and assailed by doubts. He could not believe the good news brought him by the angel. But he came to believe. In silence he gradually understood the miracle and its meaning. His supporting Elizabeth over the name of the new-born by inscribing John on the writing-tablet was the proof of his repentance. This change-of-heart also brought about the loosening of his tongue. At that instant his power of speech returned and he spoke and praised God.
For Zechariah himself, however, silence was initially a punishment. He had been fearful and dubious when he ought to have rejoiced and thanked God. Gabriel silenced him. He had to meditate in silence on the wonderful doings of God. Zechariah had, at first, wanted to communicate his good news. When he emerged from the Holy of Holies and the people recognised, despite their impatience, that he had had a vision, he had made agitated signs to them. He wanted to signal to them that God was doing something amazing.
When he came back home from Jerusalem he could say nothing. He must have communicated somehow to Elizabeth. He must have supported her and helped her. But not with words. With discretion, at home, Zechariah must have repented many time of his scepticism and of his rebuff to the angel.
Was there good in the silence? Surely a great deal. Zachariah needed to learn (and he isn’t alone in this, is he?) that fear and doubt are not the best reactions to God’s goodness. In silence, in prayer, in the kind of reflection which takes place at a little distance from the sanctuary Zachariah and other fearful, sceptical persons arrive at a more trusting attitude. God Who knows us and our needs and Who loves us will provide us with the answer to our prayers and will help us to call that answer by the right name.
Our business is to praise God. Sometimes we do that with words, the most beautiful we can find. Sometimes we do that with music, which expresses the deepest and best that is in our heart. And sometimes we praise God in complete silence. God is ultimately inexpressible and He calls out of us a response which sometimes cannot be expressed in words or even in music.
At the Annunciation, Gabriel told Our Lady that her cousin Elizabeth was also expecting a child. She immediately set out to visit her. When Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted her The child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy. John the Baptist could not speak. He had not even been born. Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Gabriel had understood that Jesus could be welcomed as His saviour even by one who could not speak. The leap is wordless but it says so much. In a very basic way, the leap is musical, a sort of dance, a very expressive gesture. Above all the leap is silent. Yet the recognition which that joyful kick occasioned in Elizabeth Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee is one of the most powerful of prayers and perhaps the most often repeated.
Much later when Jesus went to John for Baptism, John ever submissive to Christ, said it was for him to seek baptism from the Lord. But the Precursor needed no baptism since in the womb he had already acknowledged in a joyful dance the sovereignty of the God-made-flesh. Still later the dance of Salome would occasion the martyrdom of John. When Herod’s executioner came to the dungeon to do away with John, it was thought that in cutting off his had he would silence the great preacher. Silence was once more a punishment. But John’s teaching: repent of your sins and prepare for the closeness to you of God-made-man cannot be silenced. And in the silence of martyrdom that teaching achieves a particularly persuasive eloquence.
John’s goodness, the austerity of his life, the sincerity of his submission to Christ and the fearlessness of his work: all of these are illuminated by the magnificence of his martyrdom. Magnificence? Silence imposed definitively in some out of the way torture-chamber. Yes, magnificent. The silence speaks still.
The eloquence of a tomb. Baptism is a going down into the grave with Christ and a rising with Him in Resurrection. John the Baptist needed no Baptism since his leap in the womb was his acceptance of salvation from Jesus. His burial however had the sacredness of all the burials of all the baptised. Jesus had no need of baptism either, of course. But as the Preface explains there had to be a making holy of the flowing waters of the baptisms of everyone else. Jesus had hardly any need of a sepulchre, so briefly did He sojourn in His. But He sanctified all graves by His entombment. The silence of the grave is full of anticipation and joy.
Zechariah’s silence was a severe punishment of a very good person who was overcome with fear at a visitation from God. Even though he was in the Holy of Holies he did not expect to hear from God. He expressed a scepticism about miracles which is the wisdom of this world. Our inability sometimes to say the right thing to those who inquire of us about the most important matters is also a result of ou fearfulness and our reluctance to look foolish.
At the Good News, we should simply leap for joy, like the yet-to-be-born John the Baptist. If our leaping days are over perhaps we can have recourse to words instead, or to music. Silence can be a kind of chastisement but it also has another and more positive reality and necessity. Our response to the word of God and to the presence of our Saviour can be completely silent and still as well as verbal or musical. In the silence are elements of the virtues and sacred activities of John the Baptist: repentance; preparation for the Lord; modesty; submission to Christ; self-discipline; courage even to the endurance of a martyr’s death. Words and music are not the enemies of these important things. On the contrary, the truths of the faith need explanation and heart-felt expression.
They made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him called. They could have just asked (Zechariah wasn’t having trouble hearing) but there is something about a holy silence which invites further silence and banishes words. The desire to communicate what we have heard from God is very strong. But sometimes words fail us.
Words are not completely adequate to the task. When the right words are not available, one can only gesture or leap or be completely quiet... In the end, the best thing for Zechariah was to write something down. So words have a comeback: not everything is silent.
Let’s be grateful be that our worship here is blessed with wonderful music and with the beautiful words and fitting gestures of the liturgy. Let us give thanks also for our hearts which have understood and welcomed the teaching of Saint John the Baptist – his eloquent pre-natal gesture, the powerful preaching of his maturity and the magnificent witness of his death. John is always the precursor of Jesus. Always pointing to Him and showing us how to prepare for Him. The Baptist shows us also how to point to the Lord by our own life: by our words, by our music and also by our silence.
Peter Gallagher SJ