One of the Bible’s consistent commandments is one of Advent’s most repeated refrains: Fear not. Be not afraid. Do not fear.
The angel appears to Zechariah – husband to Elizabeth and father to John – and fear overwhelms him. He is terrified. “Do not fear” the angel says.
Mary the mother of Jesus is greeted by the angel with the same words, ”Do not fear.”
To Joseph, as though in a dream, the words come “Fear not.”
To those shepherds, under the deep blue of midnight with their flocks, trembling at what they have seen: “Do not be afraid.”
That’s where the Christmas story begins. Not with hope and joy, peace and love… but with fear. Which is where our own lives hover, too.
“I awake in the night at the least sound,” Wendell Berry writes, “For fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be” (1). And how much more in this Advent season, with all of its unknowns, complexity, and encroaching concerns? Many of us are not entering into a season of waiting, so much as we already wait.
Father Henri Nouwen has written on The Spirituality of Waiting. Writing in 1985, he observed this about his place and time: “In our particular historical situation, waiting is even more difficult because we are so fearful. One of the most pervasive emotions in the atmosphere around us is fear. People are afraid… Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are and go someplace else…” (2)
And yet we are where we are. We can’t depart for Bethlehem, not just yet. We can’t form an angel choir, we can hardly find a way to sing ourselves. We can’t sprint toward the manger, and certainly not all at once. We must be present here, now, to God, to one another, to ourselves. So perhaps this Advent is a time to consider our own fears, and how Christ comes precisely to us: to people who are afraid.
Those who tremble, for instance, with the fear we consider this morning, on this First Sunday of Advent. Do not be afraid… of silence.
But we are. Many of us, that is. So many of us, in fact, that a psychological category has developed for this particular fear: sedatephobia. A fear of silence for any number of reasons.
There are those of us who associate silence with loss, or pain.
Those for whom our anxious thoughts persist when it’s quiet.
Those who feel pressure to perform, or have been criticized for being quiet, or have come to have their voice overpowered to where they’re not heard.
There are some of us who simply like the distraction that noise provides.
And there are so many of us who rush to break any looming silence any time it visits.
The composer, John Cage was known for music that employed long periods of silence, and when the music stopped, without fail, concertgoers quickly filled the resulting silence, with shuffling, shifting, whispers, and at a time when this was acceptable in public: all the sounds of nervous coughing and clearing of throats.
What do we do when the music stops? Especially as people of faith? How often do we simply fill up the stillness? How frequently do we race to break the quiet?
And maybe never any more so than in this season, when everything begins to pull us toward the volume and music of Christmas. The harmony of “Joy to the World.” The sounds of organ and brass. The chorus we hope will break against the sky. The comfort of light and volume. And while the message of Christmas is that God is in the music and the swell, the message of Advent might just be that God is in the stillness and the silence. For so often, our lives are not full of hope and joy, but full of monotony, things that feel lifeless and shallow, passionless, convictionless, still.
Which is where we find Isaiah in our reading — not racing forward with hope, but simply enduring, wondering when he will hear from God, clearing his throat to speak into the silence of his own Advent.
You can hear in the text what we might call “the frustration of Isaiah.” Our reading begins with the prophet almost in lament, crying out to God: “God, how we wish you would break open the heavens and come down…how we wish the mountains would tremble…how we wish you would make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to tremble.”
In other words, “God, come down. Show up. Demonstrate your power in ways we can’t deny. It’s been so long since anyone has heard you, God (v. 4). So long since any eye has seen you. No one calls your name anymore. No one strives to lay hold of you anymore.”
In other words, “It’s silent. More silent than we wish it were. Too silent sometimes for us to sense your presence. So silent that we struggle to call your name, to lay hold of you. We feel like you’re hidden from us.”
Isaiah is known as the “Prophet of Advent.” A person who knows so intimately well both the umistakeable volume of God’s presence and the uneasy stillness of God’s apparent absence. And Isaiah means so much to us in our own Advent because we know both of those things, too.
I don’t know about you, but there are those times when I’ve bowed my head to pray and I felt nothing. Sensed nothing happening. The words couldn’t come. And who knows where they went, but certainly no higher than the ceiling.
I don’t know about you, but there are times when I wanted to say the right thing to the person lost or grieving, and I couldn’t find it, couldn’t reach it.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched helplessly as the wicked prosper and innocents suffer, and I’ve struggled to find the words of justice.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve grimaced and grieved over the seeming impossibilities of our world.
In the language Language of Isaiah, “Show us something God. Do something. Rend the heavens; break open the mountains; do something; make some noise.”
Because a God that makes noise is a God I can always hear. A God that breaks things open and comes with great displays and strength is a God that I can always see. A God that shines the light so brightly and eases my fears so decisively is a God that I can always know and follow.
But then, one thing we learn in this season of Advent is that sometimes God isn’t like that at all. In fact, sometimes God doesn’t make noise. Sometimes, God makes silence.
Kathleen Norris is a spiritual writer, who is quite well known now, but earlier in her life she spent time teaching in elementary schools in North Dakota, to Native American children especially. She has reflected about this experience of traveling to different classes and teaching about writing. And in one of her exercises she would go to the class and say: “Class I’ll make a deal with you. First, you get to make all the noise you want. And after that, you have to make silence.”
Here’s how it worked: She would raise her hands and the kids could make as much noise as they possibly could: scream, clap, stomp, bang on their desks, as much as they wanted.
But as she lowered her hand they had to stop.
She writes that it took 2 or 3 times to get the noise level loud. The kids couldn’t believe it. She would beg for “more, more” and soon they would get it and the room would be howlingly loud.
And she also wrote that it took even longer, plenty of practice, to really make silence. Because invariably someone would break it — a funny face, a murmur or squeak of a chair, a cough or clearing of the throat. It took practice to make the silence. But she eventually found that the children could become just as good at and just as able to make silence as they were to make noise
She makes 2 observations of her experiment.
First, silence always evoked more from the students than noise did. When they wrote about it, when they described noise, it was all the same – clichés, unoriginal writing. “We were like a herd of elephants” or “So much noise couldn’t hear ourselves think.” But when they wrote about silence it was a burst of originality and creativity. Liberated imaginations. Deep images like “being as slow and silent as a tree spreading its branches.” One girl wrote a poem that described it as “spiders spinning their webs.” And another little girl offered this gem about the silence: “It reminded me to take my soul with me wherever I go.”
And the second observation was that while some kids loved it, others were reticent. Reluctant. “Why don’t you want to do it?” she would ask. And one 5th Grader replied, “Because it’s scary. It’s like we’re waiting for something.” (3)
Fearful people have a hard time waiting. But it comes down to this: if Advent begins in silence — and if God is sometimes making silence around us — maybe we should be making silence, too.
To always insist for the things Isaiah calls for – break open the heavens, tremble the mountains, quake our enemies — is really not much more than asking God to make a little noise, right? And is that the only God we want? Is that the only God we have enough faith to follow? Or might Advent give us the chance to practice another way of knowing God and trusting God?
There are things we can learn in the silence that we will never learn in the noise. And we won’t learn them if we keep shuffling, and shifting, and breaking the stillness. “Keep alert,” the gospel reading for this First Sunday of Advent says. For the movement of God is something you can, in fact, miss if you are not watchful, listening, and aware.
So perhaps all that silence can liberate us. Can help us understand our lives more deeply and truthfully. Can help us know God not just in the moments of volume, but also in the moments of quiet, where we spend so much of our lives.
Is it scary? Absolutely.
Does it feel like we’re waiting for something? No doubt.
But maybe it also reminds us to take our souls with us, wherever we go.
Yes, Advent should teach us that sometimes God doesn’t break open the heavens to come down. Sometimes God sneaks into a barn on the edge of town to be born in the stable of the world that held little room amidst all its urgent noise.
So do not be afraid of this silence. For if we’re still enough, we learn that the silence comes right before the sound, which visits as quietly as a star that breaks against a monotonous night sky; as silently as an angel who appears as though in a dream; as softly as a baby crying in a manger.
Enough noise, now. Make silence. Make silence.
- Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things.”
- Henri Nouwen, A Spirituality of Waiting.
- Kathleen Norris, “Silence” in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.