In Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic he talks about the time when you cry out to God, when you summon the energy to convince yourself he might in fact be there, and you are met with nothing but silence. To more precise, not quite silence, more like the empty static at the end of an old vinyl record. Almost the sound of where something should be but is not.
It’s the silence that intimidates because there is a voice that should be there. It is the silence heard when a young man goes into a school and shoots a score of children, their teachers and his family. It is the silence we hear when we want something to hear.
I had the idea for this post, and the series I will post each day this week, before the shooting on Friday. But the tone would have been different. It might have been slightly hectoring against the tendency to commercialise Christmas. I might have made the point that Advent is to be a time of waiting, but in fact we spend it rushing to and fro frantically doing all the things that we do not need to do. Only to be able, for those few precious days, relax and do nothing. We precede inactivity with a frenzy rather than waiting and then moving towards action.
In a way I suppose I have done what I said I would not, even in the act of saying I am not doing it.
Silence is a funny thing. It leaves things open. I could have just not said I was ever going to discuss anything else. Any break to the silence, any interruption, changes things. When someone speaks they cannot unspeak. It’s not about hearing what you want to hear, silence isn’t waiting to get the answer you want. Silence is waiting.
Silence is pregnant. There is something about silence that is temporary, otherwise it would be unremarkable. It is a pause, a step before something is said. It is the pregnant expectation that something is coming.
Silence is hard. We want answers, we want reassurance. When there is violence and hatred, and exploitation and suffering we want someone to say everything is okay. The outpouring of grief could cause people to cry ‘where is God at a time like this’, but those voices are pre-empted by those ready to tell whoever will listen exactly where God is. For a few it is he who sits in judgement orchestrating actions to punish our decadent ways, for others it proves his absence. For some it shows he is distant, unconcerned with the tragedy that befalls us all at one time or another, but particularly acute in a corner of Connecticut this weekend. For others he is there with his arms flung around the parents grieving the loss of children that will not see another Christmas Day.
For four hundred years the people of Israel lived in the midst of such deafening silence. A God who had spoken through their forefathers and prophets appeared to have left the stage. They wanted answers.
But the attentive could still here static in the background. This was not an absent God, he had not walked away.
Silence leaves room for hope.