Sunday, 29 March 2015

Silence: assured presence and apparent absence

From the cross, just before he died, Jesus cried out with a loud voice “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).  It is a quote from the beginning of Psalm 22, a Psalm which starts with desolation and abandonment, talks of mocking and being overwhelmed with distress, but moves on to become a song of hope and deliverance.  But it begins where Jesus is, in a very dark place.  Silence in the oldest parts of the Old Testament writings is not a good thing.  When God is silent, God is not felt to be active.  The grave is silent and that is the place of the dead.  There was silence before creation and it requires the spoken Word of God to bring order and creation, to bring life and hope into being.  In this tradition silence is the state of being abandoned or not yet being.

But that is not the only tradition.  Silence is also the place of rest when work is done.  The tradition moves from formless silence to restful silence on the Sabbath.  Creation has done its work and it is good.  Silence is the beholding, the adoring; the praise without words.  This is good silence which can exist secure and content.

Silence is seen as good and evil, as a place of ultimate hope and also apparent despair.  The Gospel exists to end a great silence, the silence of God in Christ unknown.  Christ comes to make known what has always been, but not seen, to end the silence of unknowing and spiritual blindness.  However, just before that dawns, before it breaks, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is struck dumb, made silent, by his doubting that his wife would bear a son, that God’s promise would be fulfilled.  His silence ends when he agrees that John will be called John and his mouth is opened (Luke 1:18-20, 59-64), when he shows his faith and his trust in God.  The silence here is a curse, a sanction and punishment for not trusting God, broken only by the sign of that trust renewed.

Silence is also the place of withdrawal.  Jesus is taken, driven into the wilderness after his baptism and there he is confronted by temptation and coming through this he is able to focus on his mission and purpose.  He finds direction through the struggle in the silence, through the conflict of confronting the spiritual battle with a very different vision of how he should be and rejecting the one presented by the tempter.  The silence can be ended.

At the end of the New Testament, the writer of the Book of Revelation has a series of seals being opened and various judgments emerge.  The seventh and final seal opens the scroll and there is silence in heaven for half an hour (Revelation 8:1).  It is a pause before the final judgment which opening the seal brings.  It is an awesome silence in which anticipation builds and we know something utterly decisive is about to follow.  Salvation has been set in motion.  It is a silence I think about when at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer I hold a silence before we move on to the Lord’s Prayer.  It is completed and mortals are silenced by the awe and wonder of what has taken place.  Silence is held because there is nothing more to be said, that can be said; it is a silence of presence revealed, which preceeds salvation opened for us, which the Eucharist  announces and marks.

In this light the Christian mystics and devotees have developed a tradition of silence that spans the centuries.  It is an embracing of the silence of temptation, of struggle, of inner conflict, of wondering whether there is a presence at all so that we may find it; a silence that knows the seal has been opened and can be at one with the glory and salvation revealed.  A poet, Janet Rimmer, has played with this duality of understanding of silence, of assured presence and apparent absense.
In Your presence there is an absence
silencing my greatest fear.
It is with You that I know the essence
of what is life, now that You’re near.

It is in the absence of Your presence
that I rekindle my desire;
and it is when I am without You
that I burn, an inextinguishable fire.

In Your presence there is an absence
of all that preys upon my mind;
for my heart’s desire’s before me,
and I leave all else behind.

It is in the absence of Your presence
that I have learned to be apart.
It is without You that I am with You;
for You are Joy within my heart.
 Northumbria Community p330

Silence is extremely important and this Lent I have felt its absence in the noise and busyness that has at times overwhelmed me.  There are two great silences this coming week and I want to make the most of them.  On Maundy Thursday, after we have celebrated the Eucahrist of the Last Supper, we keep watch with Christ as he prays in the garden.  ‘Can we watch with him just one hour?’  On Good Friday I have decided that we will keep this church open as a still place for the three hours between 12noon and 3.00pm.  If you want words and liturgy, they can be found in the Cathedral.  If you want busyness of life carrying on as normal, it will be outside.  In here we will be still.  We will embrace the darkness, the abandonment of the cross and find there the presence that brings salvation, that announces good news and affirms the confidence and trust in God’s redeeming love; of promise fulfilled.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Palm Sunday 29th March 2015

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