Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Silence

And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time (Luke 1:20).

The hardest days had been the very first ones. The moment Zechariah stepped out of the holy place where he had been offering incense people knew that something had happened to him. He gestured but could not speak. At first some thought he had suffered a stroke. Eventually everyone agreed that he had seen a vision – but what? What had happened there at the altar?

When he got home his wife was clearly worried and the neighbors were full of questions. Zechariah thought it odd that his silence mysteriously prompted his friends to speak slowly and loudly. His hearing was fine.

The priest, so accustomed to speaking words of blessing and instruction, was now wrapped in a cocoon of silence. Turns out, that’s just what he needed. He needed the kind of quiet that would allow him to ponder what Gabriel had spoken; he needed to work it through, pray it through.

At first the silence felt like punishment. With the passing of time Zechariah came to under stand that he had blatantly refused to believe what God had spoken. Zechariah saw that he had been afraid. At moments he still was. He was afraid to let himself embrace what the angel had spoken, to risk yet again the pain of dashed hopes. For this lack of faith the angel had rendered him mute. A punishment, or so it seemed.

But as days became weeks and months, Zechariah began to think differently about his stilled tongue. Unable to speak, he listened. Relieved of the need to formulate words for others to hear, he paid better attention to what others were saying. He began to repent of his need to control things with his words, especially his need to control how others regarded him. He watched people. He noticed the dilation of their pupils, the curvature of their lips, the furrowing of their brow as they talked.

Above all, Zechariah had a front row seat as he watched the miracle of what God was doing in Elizabeth’s womb. Month after month he watched in silence. No commentary. No questions. No theories or explanations. Only watching and praying.

Zechariah discovered the silence imposed upon him was not a punishment. It never was meant to be. The silence was gift.


The gift of silence was God’s chosen method for getting Zechariah out of the way. Maybe God does similar things with us.

Anxieties often prompt us to action. In our fear we try to control things and fix things. Like Zechariah, we ask questions and seek explanations. If we can understand something then we can manage it. But God does not respond to our fears with explanations and assurances. What God asks of us is that we get out of the way and pay attention to what is happening around us. God is at work. In our fear we can miss out on that.

At Christmas time we would do well to imitate Zechariah. We love to sing of “silent night, holy night.” We sing of the little town of Bethlehem, “how still we see thee lie.” But we are rarely silent. We are rarely still. In our noise and hurry our fears cast a long shadow.

In silence and stillness God becomes more real to us, more present. God becomes large and our fears become small. Silence is a gift. Where and how will you find that gift this Christmas?

Merciful God, grant to us in this season of the year the gift of stillness and quiet. Help us to find it that we might see what you are doing in the world around us. Having seen, call us from the quiet places and empower us to love the world in your name. Amen.

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