Gary Black on Why “Silence” Matters at Christmas

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Now, but not yet.

Everyone everywhere, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are, sees the same world, and tries to make sense. We don’t have to be philosophers to do that; in fact sometimes philosophers miss it badly. What is required is that we be human beings— ordinary men and women who live in ordinary places taken up with ordinary responsibilities.

The same world? Yes. Any honest person acknowledges the good that is there. Kindness and beauty, generosity and hope, these run through our lives, sometimes only small streams, but they are there. A surprising smile, an unexpected grace, a cup of cold water, the singing of a bird, a lingering sunset, the satisfaction of good work… and on and on.

But wherever we are we have to respond to the wounds of the world too. Disappointments that are too much, heartaches that hurt very badly, wrongs that are wrong in every way that matters, choices that unexplainable and grievous… and on and on.

As December began, looking into the days of Advent, I asked friends to reflect on their own waiting, especially in light of the vocations that are theirs— but to do so, if possible, in the face of the soon-to-be-released film, “Silence.”

(For these “windows into waiting,” see HERE)

Why? Advent is the season of waiting, hoping and hoping that we will not be left alone in the universe— “waiting for Godot” as the playwright Samuel Becket called it, “lost in the cosmos” as novelist Walker Percy described it. While their responses may seem a million miles from the lives you know, in reality they are more honest, starkly honest, than most of us ever imagine.

People of theistic faith together believe that God is not only there, but that he is not silent, that he has spoken in ways that reveal something true about who he is and who we are. What distinguishes Christian faith is its conviction that God has become like us, the Word becoming flesh and living for a while among us. And of course the hope of Christmas, at the heart of every longing, believes that the baby of Bethlehem is truly joy to the world, because his blessings flow far as the curse is found.

Believing that to be true is easier when the sun is shining, and the kisses are sweet, but is immeasurably harder when we are face to face with sorrow, when long longings are not met. We feel conflicted at the very core, wanting to hold onto faith, but pushed and shoved, over the reality of things just not being the way they are supposed to be.

The wisest among us call this “now, but not yet,” trying to account for the honest hope that God has come into history— making all things new —and yet we do not see that in ways that satisfy the yearnings of our hearts. And with creation itself groans, crying out against the burdens it bears, waiting for its release. We do too, frail folk that we are, crying in our own ways for things to be different. No more tears, no more sadness, no more evil, no more malice.

A good friend, Gary Black responded to my question with an essay, weaving together Advent and Silence with unusual passion, writing about his own wrestling with the meaning of Christmas in light of the difficult story that Shusaku Endo has written, and now that Martin Scorsese has brought to the theaters of the world. If there is anything true about Gary it is that he feels the world deeply, never content with easy answers to easy questions. In Gary’s apprenticeship with Dallas Willard, studying with him for years, listening to him reflect on the meaning of his life as he was dying, Gary’s vision of honest faith was deepened in ways that are profound, and a gift to all of us.

So I hope that you will take the time to read, and reflect. What he invites us into is a pilgrimage of faith and hope and love that can take us through the joys and the sorrows of life, the now but the not yet— believing that Christmas has come, that God has come, even as we cry out against the weight of the world, sometimes so very silent it seems.

–Steve

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I’m not letting up—I’m standing my ground. My complaint is legitimate. God has no right to treat me like this— it isn’t fair! If I knew where on earth to find him, I’d go straight to him. I’d lay my case before him face-to-face; give him all my arguments firsthand. I’d find out exactly what he’s thinking, discover what’s going on in his head. Do you think he’d dismiss me or bully me? No, he’d take me seriously. He’d see a straight-living man standing before him; my Judge would acquit me for good of all charges.  I travel east looking for him—I find no one; then west, but not a trace; go north, but he’s hidden his tracks; then south, but not even a glimpse.

Job 23:1-9 The Message.

Do not cast me away from Your presence. And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.

Psalm 51:11 NASB

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and You will not listen? Or cry to You “Violence!” and You will not save?

Habakkuk 1:2 NRSV

Where are You? Speak to me! I need help.

How many times have we uttered these words in times of pain, fear and tragedy? Atheist and priest alike offer these prayers with equal fervency. The question is not if these words fill our mouths, only when. We long to know that our plea for aid and comfort will be heard and answered. When will justice come? When will peace abide? Where are You?

The silence that too often follows these cries brings with it a cascade of doubt, desperation and eventually despair. We dread the waiting, wondering, and circular ruminations on all that could be, should be, or may never be again.  We need answers, wisdom, direction…. something! Anything. The longer we wait the deeper and wilder our fears tend to grow. Will this ever end? Will it ever be the same again? Silence.

Anger simmers. Tears flow. Isolation invades. The body aches. Sleeplessness haunts the night. I’m waiting. Please. Speak. I need You. 

Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed novel Silence profoundly excavates these hard but very common, and very human conditions of the soul. Published in 1966, I first read the book as a graduate student, and have found many occasions to return to Endo’s poignant insights. I am deeply moved by the unblinking way he explores two enduring quandaries. The first is the question of theodicy, i.e. why an infinitely good God permits unspeakable evil? The second is the burning silence we often encounter when seeking God during periods of great difficulty. 

Endo’s unparalleled writing pushes the reader to suffer in silence with his characters. Set in 17th century Japan, Endo invites us to peer into the hearts and minds of three Jesuit priests seeking to love and serve their Japanese parishioners as they all anguish under severe religious persecution. We feel the empty disease of longing, confusion and doubt that sickens the soul. We watch how theological ideals like omnipotent justice and benevolence can hover in the mind yet elude the heart. We wait, watch, and yearn too see how, or if, grace will emerge in their despair, and by association, in ours.   

On December 23rd “Silence” came to the big screen. I haven’t seen the movie yet— as it has only opened to limited audiences so far —but look forward to how Martin Scorsese and his cast of talented artists will portray these harrowing and heroic stories. Most of all, I’m deeply appreciative the movie premiered during the Advent season. “Advent” stems from the Latin word “adventus” which translated into English means “coming.” For two millennia now Christians have celebrated and meditated on the great “coming” of God in the birth and life of the Christ child, Jesus the Nazarene.  With all the modern distractions of the “Holidays” I often fail to properly recognize Advent as the memorial of the eternal, unyielding fact that God, in Christ, has spoken, speaks now, and will speak forevermore to humanity. At the birth of Christ the silence was broken. We need never be alone again. He is here. Our need is met. We shall not be left wanting. Even still, I struggle to maintain ears to hear that undeniable truth.

Yet, almost every year, sometime between finishing the last of the leftovers from Thanksgiving and my last minute expedition to the shopping mall, a deeply meaningful childhood memory rises up from the recesses of my cluttered mind. I begin to hear the voice of Charles Schultz’s adoring character Linus, telling his confused and desperate best friend Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about. Even now I can picture the scene. With all the Peanuts characters gathered to practice for the annual school Christmas play, Linus walks out onto a quite stage, asks for the lights to be dimmed, and recites from memory the words from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

As he exits the stage he picks up his security blanket, walks over to his stunned friend and says gently, “That is what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.” And then with his blanket properly positioned over his shoulder he places his thumb back into his mouth.

I believe this delightful recollection rises yearly into the forefront of my mind because in significantly unique, yet meaningfully similar ways, I continue to ask the same questions that Charlie Brown, Job, David, Habakkuk, the shepherds, the persecuted Christians huddled in hiding, and the rest of humanity are asking; When will my deepest longings be satisfied? Linus’ words, God’s words, direct me to seek my answers in the very moment when our deafening, isolating silence ended, forever.

The coming of Christ marks the glorious instant in history when the angels shout that we have no reason to be afraid. These divine messengers carried the greatest, most joyous news. News that illuminated the darkness of not only that night, but of every hushed, empty and fear filled night since. The good Word, the good news is that the God of the universe will never be distant, untouchable, or incomprehensible again. The Bethlehem star points to the unalterable fact that God has, does and forever will abide with us. We need never be alone again. Even in the silence.

Yes, we mourn, suffer, and doubt. These are the nature and effects of the broken and bruised human condition which binds us on this side of eternity. But with Christ’s presence we experience what Isaiah long hoped for, that the people living in darkness would see a great Light. And for those who dwell in the lands of the shadow of death, the Light would appear.  The Light has come, eternity has begun, and our savior and friend meets us, abides with us, especially in our silent sufferings. Immanuel. Though bones may break and hearts grow faint, in it all, through it all, we can come to know by experience, and develop an enduring confidence in the reality, that Immanuel is true. Finally, the love of God has brought quiet into our silence.

Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is mild.

Yes. Glory to God in the heavens. Peace on earth, good will to all.

Gary Black, Professor and author, Azusa, CA

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