Luke 1:57–80, Nativity of St. John the Baptist
On June 25th, 2010, nine years ago today, something amazing happed for which I’m eternally grateful. It was a Friday, around noonday, and even now I’m not sure what to call it. I’ve heard people talk about “conversion experiences,” but that never seemed to quite fit somehow. I started attending a church shortly after it happened, and the pastor there suggested it was a kind of “spiritual awakening,” which did sound a bit closer to the truth. But the description that felt most true, and came naturally as my mind tried to make sense of it, was that it felt like being born again. It felt like being utterly annihilated only to rise again as something new, simultaneously terrifying and beautiful. It was as if God, getting inpatient and tiring of being subtle, grabbed me by the ankles, held me upside down, and shook violently until… well, I’m still not sure, but let’s just say that a lot of spiritual and psychological loose change fell from my pockets.
I remember coming back to my senses slowly, and then carefully sitting up. Two very kind and helpful souls, were sitting to either side of me, and, looking very concerned, one of them asked if I was “OK.” My first reaction was spontaneous and tearful laughter, because “OK” seemed like a vast understatement if ever there was one. And then something curious happened…. I opened my mouth with every intention of giving some sort of answer, although not knowing what I was going to say. But when I opened my mouth nothing came out, and nothing would come out. I was struck completely dumb unable to speak or utter any sound at all, and even more curious, I didn’t feel any surprise or fear over this. I just tried to be helpful by pointing at my throat and shrugging. It’s probably because of this experience that when I read today’s gospel, I felt a strong kinship with Zechariah.
Zechariah was a priest of the order of Abijah, meaning “my father is Yahweh.” He was married to Elizabeth, and they were without children. One day, he entered the sanctuary of the Lord with an offering of incense, when suddenly Gabriel, an angel of the Lord, appeared to him, and Zechariah felt terrified. But the angel told him not to be afraid, and that his prayer was answered. Gabriel went on to describe how God’s will would unfold for Zechariah and his wife, but Zechariah couldn’t quite bear the good news, and was struck mute, unable to speak. Shortly afterwards, Elizabeth conceived, and as they waited in joyful anticipation for the child to be born Zechariah continued dwelling in silence.
Silence plays a crucial, and we could even say central, role in the spirituality of the ancient desert hermits and monks, from whom we’re blessed with their long tradition of contemplative prayer. Silence represents the essential Mystery we call God, leading Thomas Keating to say that silence is God’s first language with everything else being a merely a poor translation. We can understand silence as the subtraction of all that is not God, until we’re left with nothing we could offer a name for. This silence is God’s ineffable Truth, numinous, and unspeakable.
Olivier Clément, in his book The Roots of Christian Mysticism, describes how we prepare to receive this gift of God’s silence by stripping away our being until we become nothing but expectation. Simone Weil refers to this as de-creating ourselves, although it may be more accurate to say we humbly let God de-create us, our will submitting to God’s will, and in that willingness, we cooperate with divine grace. Clément continues by comparing this to a descent into the “luminous deep waters” of creation, the waters of baptism. He writes, “Then the Spirit comes, as… upon Mary and the person is created afresh in ‘an ineffable peace and silence’.”
And here we see another important ancient theme, that this eternal, holy silence, is not barren, but is instead a luminous emptiness, pregnant with the fruit of God’s Word. This silence is fertile ground for the ongoing act of creation through which all things are made new.
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a fifth-century theologian, stretches language to its breaking point in trying to describe this silence, calling it a “more-than-luminous darkness” in which the mystery of the godhead is revealed. The darkness of this Silence remains “utterly intangible and utterly invisible,” and yet somehow also reveals a “brightness more beautiful than beauty” itself. And, perhaps referencing Zechariah’s experience, Dionysius continues, writing “Angels, bearers of the Divine Silence… reveal… [this luminous darkness] on the very threshold of [God’s] sanctuary.”
Zechariah bears witness to this revelation of God’s Silence through his ineffable encounter with the Divine. His fear came of suffering a dying of his old self, leaving only a willingness to submit to God’s mercy. And as he came to rest in that dark silence, he found it filled with the beauty of Christ’s Light and Peace. This is the source and fulfillment of Zechariah’s own prophecy: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Through the amazing grace of God’s luminous darkness, Divine Silence becomes both its own revelation of God’s Truth and a source of revelation for God’s Truth in the world. When Zechariah dwells in God’s ineffable silence, he bears the fruit of naming the unnamable. All he could do was give thanks for God’s mercy and generosity, and in fulfilling God’s will, he named his son John, meaning “God is gracious.” John, of course, went on to invite many others to those luminous deep waters of baptism, to the willing uncreation of their worldly selves, in readiness for the descent of the Spirit through which they would be created anew in Christ.
Nine years ago, the ancient ministry of Zechariah’s offspring bore fruit in my life, taking the form of a baptismal encounter with the Divine Silence. This Silence calls to all of us, and reveals itself in sometimes dramatic, but more often very subtle ways. It is always a generous gift of grace from the Holy One, where all we can do is be prepared to receive it by remaining still in God’s presence. This stillness doesn’t need to be found in a church or tabernacle, because as the Hesychast monks of old taught, it is the stillness found within the depths of our hearts.
Of this stillness poet R.S. Thomas writes:
But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalmwriter,
the bottomless ocean
We launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.
It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?
Like Zechariah, we’re invited to practice remaining still before the Lord, ready to notice the visit from an angel delivering God’s Divine message of Silence. As this luminous darkness unfolds within, a peace and joy, beautiful beyond beauty, is born in our hearts, like a flower blooming in the desert. And then our lips can only offer thanksgiving and praise, for God’s graciousness, for the Holy One’s servant, John, and for this baptism of water and Spirit. And out of this fertile silence, God’s Eternal Word is born, and so we bear the fruit of Christ’s Light by word, deed, and presence in the world.
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