December 21, 2011
The Fruit of Silence
Imagine not being able to talk. For some of us, that's more wish-dream than imagination; talking too often seems to get us into trouble or to open doors for people to mock us. For others of us, not being able to talk would be torturous. I, for one, would much rather be the only one left able to talk than to be the only one not talking. I quote Bono: I love the sound of my own voice. To borrow from another proverb, in the world of the mute, the chatterbox is king.
In the time before Christ, not many people were talking. The prophets had gone silent for centuries; Israel itself was in mute submission to Rome. And then one day Zechariah, member of the priestly class, emerged from the temple unable to speak, because he had not believed what he heard when the angel of the Lord spoke on God's behalf.
Zechariah hadn't been struck mute because of unrighteousness any more than his wife, Elizabeth, had been unable to bear children because of unrighteousness. Luke's Gospel describes both of them as "righteous in the sight of God"--words not thrown around carelessly in the Scriptures. No, the same God who allowed an elderly Elizabeth to become pregnant just as Sarah, the matriarch of Elizabeth's people, had become pregnant late in life, struck Zechariah mute because of his unbelief, because of his lack of faith, because of his fear.
We don't know how long Zechariah could not speak. We assume it was nine months because we fill in the gaps of the stories we read. But Luke's Gospel doesn't tell us; it only tells us that Zechariah completed his time of service, that he returned home, that "at their appointed time" (nine months + x) God's words through the angel came to pass and Elizabeth gave birth to a child. And eight days after that, Zechariah's lack of faith was overwhelmed by the evidence of God's wonderworking power in the child borne to his wife at such a late age. His fear was overwhelmed by a direct experience of God's goodness to his people. And Zechariah obeyed the word of the Lord and named his child John. And "immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God." This is what he went on to say:
"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
That soliloquy made it into the Scriptures, which means it's counted among the words of the Lord. The fruit of Zechariah's silence is God's word to us in Advent.
We don't often think of something cosmic, something fundamentally redemptive, emerging from silence. Israel itself didn't expect its deliverance to be birthed out of its silent acceptance of the tyranny of Rome. But maybe, if we defy the timidity that tempts us along the way, our silence can bear something like the Word of the Lord: words of mercy we didn't know we had in us, offers of reconciliation we never expected to make, gifts of forgiveness and peace to those we'd long shunned. Silence has the capacity to bear grace, as evidenced in Zechariah's life, as evidenced on a silent night in a little town.
As we wait for Christmas this year, let us accept with faith the silence of God as something as living and active as the Word of God. Let us keep silent not out of fear or indifference but in solidarity with the patience of God. Let us speak boldly when it is appointed for us to speak and commit ourselves to listening for God until a word is given. Let us bear gladly the burden of responsibility laid on us by the Word of God even as we wait for the Word of God to relieve us of all our burdens. Let us prepare ourselves to enjoy the fruit of silence even as we do our part to prepare the way of the Lord in the world--a world that in many ways is oppressed by sound and fury, a world that in reality aches for silence as much as it longs for God to speak. Let us wait, in short, for Christmas.