On the Virtue of Holy Silence Before the Mysteries of God. A Meditation on the Silence Imposed on Zechariah
The Gospel of December 19th features the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the conception of John the Baptist. And while there are certainly many teachings to be drawn from this passage, there is perhaps some value to focus for a moment on the imposition of silence made upon Zechariah. This aspect of the story maybe a particular value since we live in time marked By a lack of reflection and silence, and of often stridently expressed opinions and opposition to the hidden things of God.
The Gospel opens with a description of Zechariah and Elizabeth being devout observers of the Law, and with the observation that they have reached their later years without having children. Zechariah, in his priestly ministry, is selected to enter the Temple and offer incense at the designated hour. Within he encounters the Archangel Gabriel who announces the birth of John the Baptist. Zechariah wonders
How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.
In this he is rebuked by Gabriel for his lack of faith and told,
You will be silent and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time. (Luke 1:19)
This rebuke causes some wonderment on our part. For it would seem that Zechariah’s response is not unlike that of the Blessed Mother who said, How will this be, since I know not man? (Lk 1:34). In our puzzlement we must remember that we have before us only a written text. We cannot hear the tone of voice that was used, or see other clues that indicate the attitude of Zechariah as he wonders how this can be. There must have been differences, for Mary’s question brings reassurance from Gabriel, Zechariah’s question draws rebuke.
Whatever the reason, let us ponder the the punishment declared by the Archangel.
In the first place, it seems that err if we regard the action merely as a punitive. Rather, we ought also to see it as a kind of remedy. In effect The Archangel draws of Zechariah into a kind of holy silence before the great mystery of the conception of John the Baptist. This silence will give him time to reflect and ponder, without speaking.
There is a human tendency to be analytical. Our intellect is central to our glory, and we have well used it to master nature, and unlock many aspects of the created world. And yet, glorious though our intellect is, it is also something over which we tend to stumble. There is a time simply to become quiet and ponder in reverent silence the fact that there are many mysteries beyond our ability to analyze or dissect.
For many, who think merely in the flesh, mysteries are something to be solved, something to be conquered. We moderns especially, presume that anything we do not currently understand, anything currently mysterious, we will one day fully understand, it is just a matter of time.
But the Christian tradition speaks more cautiously, about mystery. Mystery is something requires reverence. Mysteries are often something meant to be appreciated and respected, not merely to be set upon in order to be solved or unraveled. This is especially true with mysteries related to God, and to some extent human person.
Consider for example the mystery of your own person. You know much about yourself, but much lies hidden. Many things about us defy simple analysis, or categorization. In the face of this mystery, silence and reverence are essential. And while are insights about our inner self grow deeper with the passing years, we can never say we have conquered the mystery of our very self. Scripture says,
More tortuous than all else is the human heart, and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind (Jer 17:9-10),
And if we are to have this reverence for a very self, we must also have it for one another. We must reverence the mystery of one another, never demanding insistently to know things which are not ours to know. And we must never arrogantly presume that we have someone “figured out.” To claim this trivializes the human person.
A fortiori – If reverence and a holy silence is appropriate before human mysteries, how much more reverent must our attitude be toward the mysteries of God and his ways. Scripture in many places commands us to a kind of holy silence before the mystery of God:
Silence, all people, in the presence of the LORD, who stirs forth from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:17)
Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near. (Zephaniah 1:7)
Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. (Psalm 46:10)
Then Job answered the Lord:“I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more.” (Job 40:4-6)
And thus we see in today’s Gospel, how Zechariah has imposed upon him the kind of holy silence, that he might reflect more deeply and reverently on the mysteries of God. He is not to speak, he is to be still, silent before the Lord who stirs from His holy dwelling. Words reduce and seek to capture mystery. Zechariah is to ponder in reverent silence. Not one word will he utter until it all comes true.
Zechariah also manifests another common human tendency, the tendency to scoff at things we do not understand. Rather than to draw back and seek to learn in holy silence and docility, we scoff at how unlikely or uncertain things are. Since we cannot understand it, it cannot possibly be. Never mind that with God all things are possible, or that even our sciences have shown us things which we never dreamed possible, discoveries of processes in nature that baffle the mind.
Yes, there is a time to speak, a time to ask, and a time to open our mouth in teaching. But there is also a time to sit quietly, to listen, to learn, ponder in silence. There is a time to reverence mystery in quiet, wordless admiration. There is a time to humbly except that there are many things beyond my ability to know or understand.
In this reverent silence there comes forth kind of holy wisdom, a wisdom that is not easily reduced to words. It is the wisdom that appreciates that the acceptance of mystery, is itself insight. It is a silence that opens us upward and outward away from the more tiny world of things we have “figured out.”
And thus Zechariah is reduced by the angel to silence, a holy and reflective silence before the mysterious and merciful work of God.
And what of us who are approaching the mystery of the incarnation, and who live in a world steeped in mystery? Do we scoff and what we do not understand? Do we rush to open our mouth in doubt or ridicule, or do silently ponder and listen, seeking to be taught? Do we accept that humility both opens the door to wisdom and is a kind of wisdom itself?
Find silence before Christmas: God stirs from His holy dwelling.