How do we face up to the silence of God? Alain Emerson says we do so in prayer, as we learn to sit with God in the midst of pain. We learn this in Gethsemane, where Jesus asked for the cup to go from him and was answered, as best we know, with silence. This heavenly silence was the very centre of the purposes of the entire cosmos. Silence does not mean absence. Nor does it mean that we have been side-lined.
“Silence is violence,” we are told—to not speak on a particular issue is to perpetrate violence against those affected by it.
If that is true, how then do we cope with the silence of God? In the midst of our pain and our struggle, is his silence an act of violence against his people?
Perhaps you want to rush to say that God is not silent. We have his word in the Bible. He speaks through others and sometimes directly. You’re right, of course. Yet, for many, and so often for those suffering unspeakable tragedy, this is their experience. In the face of horror, in the face of despair, in the fact of death, we experience God as silent.
But silence is not violence. As Andy Crouch wrote in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, “there is no contradiction between silence and presence.” Silence can be presence. What did Job’s friends do well at? They sat with him in the ash heap for a week (Job 2) and were silent. It started to go wrong when they started to speak—not that speech is wrong, but they spoke wrongly. They were not absent, but they were silent. That was the right response to Job’s anguish.
Perhaps in God’s silence we can encounter his presence. At Advent we face up to the silence of God. If we live the season rather than the end of the story from the beginning, then we do not know when God’s silence will end. Instead, we have a rumour, a hope, of his return. Then he comes in the surprising ‘silence’ of a newly born baby. Silence is part of learning to hope.
In our Advent days, as we live in the Between, what Auden called ‘The Time Being,’ we have a rumour of hope for the future. The Christ who was born and died and rose, the Christ who conquered Death—Jesus of Nazareth, King forever—is coming back. His rule will break in and the world will be burned with fire, before being reborn.