The Silence of the Cross

The Silence of the Cross

Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year. Fr David Goodill wonders how we might market Christian silence.

In a memorable episode of the well-loved English comedy Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy hits on a scheme to sell tap water under the label ‘Peckham Spring’. With hindsight we can see that this plan isn’t as crazy as it might seem, since scientists now tell us that tap water can be every bit as good for us as the bottled variety. It does show, however, that we often fail to see the value of something until it is packaged and put on sale.

One thing that we all tend to undervalue is silence. If we were to put silence on sale would we see its value more clearly? We could mount a great advertising campaign proclaiming the benefits of Christian silence and offer different varieties to suit all tastes. Dominican silence would be a world-wide brand claiming a heritage of almost 800 years. Other brands could be more localised offering interesting regional variations or new exciting developments that capture the public imagination.

As the worldwide market for silence increases at some point questions will be asked. What is distinctive about your Christian silence? Why should I pay good money for something I can get by just finding a quite place or using some ear plugs? In this week’s Gospel reading we can find a starting point for answering these questions, when we read about Jesus restoring the speech and hearing of a deaf man.

The first reading from the book of Isaiah gives us the background for this miracle by telling us that when God comes he will open the eyes of the blind and unseal the ears of the deaf. The physical healing that is described in these passages is a sign of the deeper spiritual healing that we all need. All of us are in different ways spiritually blind and deaf, unable to utter even the most simple of words in our spiritual poverty.

Now you might think that silence is the last thing we need in our spiritual deafness; surely the absence of noise can do little to help someone who is already deaf? It is important to ask what causes us to be deaf. Physical deafness has a physical cause and in order to cure it a physical operation or action of some kind is needed. Spiritual deafness has a spiritual cause, and for that reason it is connected at the deepest level with what makes us human; our freedom.

We are spiritually deaf through the misuse of human freedom. Our freedom is founded upon openness to the truth, openness to listening for the voice of God and we abuse this freedom through filling our hearts and minds with voices and images that are less than this.

Isaiah describes how the people have made themselves deaf and blind through filling their minds and hearts with false voices and images; in their frenzy to fill their lives with wealth and power they have closed their eyes and ears to the voice of God. In order to find spiritual healing these false voices need to be destroyed, so that in the silence that results the voice of the one true God can be heard.

In the Gospel of Mark, after healing the deaf man, Jesus orders those who have witnessed the healing to tell no one about it. The man has been restored to the world of hearing, but at the same time Jesus wishes the miracle itself to be left in silence. This is part of what is commonly known as the ‘messianic secret’ that runs through Mark’s Gospel, whereby Jesus attempts to prevent his identity as the Messiah from being made public until the definitive revelation of his Kingship on the Cross.

Perhaps the term ‘messianic silence’ might be more useful in explaining Jesus’s reluctance for public proclamation of his Kingship. It is in the silence of the Cross that Jesus shows the depths of God’s love for us, a silence that destroys all false voices and reveals the voice of the one living God. The public life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is the prelude to this silence.

Although there are great speeches and discourses in the Gospels, Jesus’s life is a preparation for silence, the silence of the Cross, in which he reveals himself to us as the Word of God uttered in love. Christian silence is silence focused on the Word uttered in love; it is this we are called to proclaim to the world.

Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7 | James 2:1-5 | Mark 7:31-37

fr. David Goodill OP is Provincial Bursar of the English Dominicans, and teaches moral theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.