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Even God Can Be Silent

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A propos the Pope’s message for World Day of Communications, Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi, a world-renowned exegete comments on the theme of God’s silence. God’s silence, he writes, has two faces, one luminous, the other dark. One is revelatory, while the other brings about judgment. Below is a translation of his commentary “Anche Dio Tace” which appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, 3 February 2012, p. 5.


Anche Dio Tace by Gianfranco Ravasi
Last 24 January while the liturgy celebrated St. Francis of Sales, writer and communicator, patron of journalists, Benedict XVI anticipated the World Day of Social Communications — to be celebrated on 20 May — with a forcefully intense spiritual message dedicated to the Word and silence. He concluded with this consideration:

Learning how to communicate means to learn how to listen, to contemplate other than to speak; and this is important for the agents of evangelization. Silence and word are both essential and integral elements of the Church’s act of communicating for a renewed proclamation of Christ in the contemporary world.

Following the suggestions of that document, we decided thus to confront the theme of silence — a topic high and dense although we maybe lacking in words. We will approach it from another perspective.

P. David Maria Turoldo whose 20th death anniversary we celebrate this month used to sing:

A cloister is my heart
where in the evenings You descend
(there) You and I alone
prolong the conversation.

One perceives in these verses that the dialogue with God does not only have words but is above all made up of silence. It is not for nothing that in the Jewish tradition, the name of God — a fundamental element in any religion — should not be said, but only to be silent about.

This silence is the same as mystery, the Greek word that derives from the verb myein that requires the closing of the lips in silence, so that mystery may guard the Divine which is infinite, eternal and ineffable but also efficacious, powerful and salvific. We, therefore, are interested in the silence of God, not really of man important though it may be, since Qoheleth reminds us “there is time for speaking and a time for being silent” (Qoh. 3:7).

The silence of God — different from that of idols which is muteness since they are inert objects (“they are like scarecrows in a field of cucumbers: they do not know how to speak”, Jeremiah would sarcastically remark — has two faces, one of revelation and grace, the other of judgment and wrath.

The more fascinating representation of the “white” silence of God — synthesis of any revelation true to its name as what happens to this color which unites in itself the whole chromatic range (it is not for nothing that “white” is the color of the divine sphere in the Apocalypse) — is in the three Hebrew words that describe the manifestation of the Lord to the fleeing and discouraged prophet Elijah who arrives at summit of Mount Horeb: “qol demamah daqqah”, a “voice of subtle silence” (1 Kgs 19:2). The “fiery” prophet (he was “like fire and his word burns like a lamp”, one reads in Sirach 48,1) had waited for God in other sinaitic theophanies that were noisy and clamorous: the strong and powerful wind, the earthquake, thunder. But the Lord was not there, He was in silence which was a sign not of absence but of an efficacious presence ready to bring back Elijah on the road of his mission.

Other versions, like that of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) choose another possible rendering even if it maybe less tied up to the Hebrew text and sounds like this: “sound of a light breeze” (along these lines one also finds the ancient greek translation, the LXX). The event is therefore placed in a previous sequence of atmospheric phenomena replacing the violence of the storm with the light whisper of a breeze. But the original Hebrew, confirmed by some texts in Qumran, expresses a silence similar to that which widens in heaven upon the opening of the seventh seal, when “it became silent in heaven for about half an hour” (Apoc. 8:1)

A silent revelation (the exegete Hermann Gunkel speaks of a “silent music”) dominates Psalm 19: Creation transmits the message of its Creator without audible sounds: “The heavens proclaim the glory of God, the Firmament announces the work of His hands. Day passes the story to day, and night transmits the message to night. Without language, without words, without hearing their voice, their proclamation spreads out through all the earth and to the ends of the world their message (vv. 2-5). It is some sort of silent cosmic Torah which is followed by the written Torah which the second part of Psalm sings about.

The suggestive comment that Andre Neher leaves to us in his essay “The Word in Exile: From Biblical Silence to the Silence in Auschwitz (Marietti 1983)”: “If the Bible knows how to identify the cosmic infinite with silence, it also knows that such infinite is not the veil of another Infinite, that of the Creator, whose Word runs across the Immense to reach man, but the intimate Essence of which is also to identify itself with nothing else but silence.”

Let us continue, however, our research on the positive divine silence penetrating even the New Testament with the figure of Christ.

We think of the moments of solitude that Jesus repeatedly seeks, separating himself from the crowd to meet with the Father in prayer (an example for all in Mark 1:35). But to me, significant and positive are also the silence that Christ imposes on the signs of evil, thus bringing about salvation: to the demons (Mark 1:25), to the storm, emblematic of chaos (Mark 4:39), to the adversaries who want him to stumble (Matthew 22:34), the disciples themselves who do not understand the meaning of His suffering and His glory (mark 8:30; 9:9), the sick who have been healed so that they are not misled as to the nature of the miracle (Mk. 1:44)

At other times, it is the silence of Jesus himself which really reveals the lesson or admonition to or a judgment on His interlocutor: before the adulterous woman and her accusers (Jn. 8:6.8), before the Sanhedrin interrogating him (Mk. 14:60-61), to Pilate (Mk. 15:4-5), to Herod (Lk. 23:9). When he enters the dark path of the passion, his silence is eloquent — a silence modelled after that of the Suffering Servant which Isaiah sang about: “Mistreated, he allowed himself to be humiliated and did not open his mouth; he was like sheep in the present of the shearer, silent and did not open his mouth…” (Is. 53:7). There is therefore a sacrificial silence which becomes a principle of salvation for sinful humanity.

All of this makes up the mysterious Divine Plan that is revealed, or better, a message wrapped in silence that is unveiled and it is St. Paul who connects to the theme of silence this salvific plan which he calls “mystery”, the etymological value of which we have described above. The Apostle, in the doxology (hymn of glory) which seals the Letter to the Romans, sings of “the revelation of the mystery wrapped in silence (here the Greek verb sigao is used, 10x present in the New Testament) for many centuries, but now manifested through the Scriptures of the prophets, by order of the Eternal God, announced to all the Gentiles” (16:25). Until here, the luminous silence of God.

But there is also a silence that brings about fear and bitterness. The devotee senses as if it were a ghost that muteness which has the tone of absence and indifference, and even abandonment. On account of this, the pray-er of the Psaltery often cries out to God:

“Lord you have seen, do not be silent!
Do not be deaf to my tears!
To you I cry O Lord, my Rock
With me do not be silent because
If you do not speak, I am like one
who goes down into the infernal Pit
(Pss 35:22, 39:13, 28:1)

The “why”, the “until when” often thrown upwards by the suffering pray-er would like to shake up the mute and even sleeping God (44:24).

History without the Word of God or that of His prophets becomes incomprehensible and unbearable, but the same faith falls into a drama. The Divine inaction becomes the argument of those who deny God who can then repeat the sarcastic taunt of Psalm 42 “Where is your God?” Other times, however, the silence of God is the explicit sign of his judgment onthe sin of the people: “they will cry out to the Lord, but He will not respond, He will hide his face from them, because they have done evil deeds”, the prophet Micah threatens (3,4).

Emblematic in this regard is one of the many symbolic acts that Ezekiel performs. The Lord, in fact, proclaims to him: “I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth and you will be mute; thus, you shall no longer be for them one who reproves because they are a generation of rebels (3,26). The message is clear: the prophet incarnates the Divine choice no longer to admonish His people, but to leave them immersed in evil until they drown. Once more, the silence of God incarnated in the mute prophet, the voice of God turned off — is a sign of judgment. When the mouth of Ezekiel begins to sound once more (24,27;33,22), it will signify the return of Divine Mercy, of forgiveness and the conversion of Israel.

In the New Testament, the highest and most drammatic negative representation of the divine silence is found on the cross of Christ, when he experiences the abandonment of the Father through His silence: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Mark 15:34). Yet this emptiness which renders Christ truly and fully our brother not only in suffering and in death but also in the absence of God, will not break out in definite separation and solitude. It will set on Easter morn when the Father will efficaciousy respond to the invocation of the Son through the Resurrection.

Heinrich Schlier (1900-1978), famous German theologian and exegete commented:

At the moment in which God makes him experience what it is to be without God, to suffer, to die without God, Jesus turns to God with a psalm of the pious of the Old Testament. He does not cry out into nothingness, but to Him, towards Him. He turns to God, without God. He places at the feet of the God who has abandoned him the anguish of dying-without-God. Through this experience, Jesus, in the end,becomes for all, the conqueror of dying-abandoned-by-God, the conqueror of death-without-God.

More about the Pope’s message for World Communications Day 2012, here.

Originally posted 2012-02-09 09:46:29. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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