If you enter a Catholic church this Good Friday, you will notice the atmosphere of silence and emptiness that hangs over the sanctuary. The tabernacle doors are open, revealing the vacancy within. The altar is bare of any covering or ornament. The figures of saints all stand muffled by dark cloths. Between the hours of noon and three, austere silence and somber liturgy prevail in remembrance of the traditional three hours Christ spent in agony on the Cross.
The silence prevailing over Catholic and many other Christian churches this Holy Week offers us a good opportunity to ponder the value of silence in general and the role it plays both in our personal spiritual advancement and in overall human flourishing.
Christ as a Model of Silence
The theme of silence pervades the scriptural accounts of Christ’s passion. All four evangelists (Matt. 27:11–14, Mark 15:2–5, Luke 23:6–12, John 19:8–12) relate in their Gospels various moments when Christ remained silent in response to questions and accusations from his enemies regarding his identity, origin, and mission. For example, when Pilate asked for an explanation from Jesus of the many charges the chief priests were bringing against him, “he gave him no answer” (Matt. 27:14).
What do these silences mean? Certainly Jesus was willing enough to speak of his divine mission during his three years of public ministry. He refers to this himself during the high priest’s interrogation: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly” (John 18:20). Moreover, he does speak up in answer to the high priest and Pontius Pilate at other moments during his trial. Yet at the specific time when he might defend himself against the false testimony of his many inquisitors, he has nothing to say. Why did Christ not speak in this crucial moment when his life hung by a thread?
This is not the place to delve into scriptural exegesis and the theology behind the silence of Jesus. Entire book chapters have been written on the meaning of Christ’s various refusals to speak before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas, Herod, and Pontius Pilate. These theological reflections make clarifying distinctions between Christ’s moments of silence and of speech and provide much greater depth and insight on these mysterious passages than I can hope to recapitulate in one short essay. I encourage you to peruse, for example, Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ and Klaas Schilder’s Christ on Trial for prayerful and fascinating interpretations of these verses. For now, though, I will simply relate a couple of lessons we might glean from contemplating the silent Savior regarding our own call to embrace silence.
There are two that especially stand out to me. The first is that, by refraining from speech, the Incarnate Word lends eloquence to the message conveyed by his very person and presence. I am reminded of the line from a beloved Christmas carol:
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
From cradle to grave, the Word does not need to speak to be heard and for his identity as the Son of the Father made flesh to be proclaimed. While we are not identical to the person of the Incarnate Word, as Christians we are all called “to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), and the more we conform ourselves to him, the more we can allow his presence in us to communicate itself to others without our even speaking. We must preach the Gospel, yes, but we must go further: We must allow the Word of Christ to dwell in us so richly (cf. Col. 3:16) that even our physical bodies carry his presence wherever they go, even if we say not a word.
The second lesson I see in Christ’s refusal to answer his tormenters is a model of perfect surrender to the will of the Father, unsullied by the drive for self-protection. Christ’s silence manifests a total submission to the will of God as it is realized through his surrounding circumstances—betrayal, misunderstanding, false testimony, mockery, torture, and death—with no trace of the desperate attempt to control one’s life that you or I would almost certainly express in such a situation. Christ voices no panicked denial of his accuser’s claims, no bullet-point rebuttal of their accusations in an attempt to come out on top. Could any of us achieve such a feat of humility faced with the torments he was about to endure?
We self-protect under pressures minuscule by comparison. We are eager to correct our boss when he misattributes a project delay caused by a co-worker to us. We proclaim to acquaintances and friends that we were late to dinner because our kids dawdled getting ready. We constantly use our words to put ourselves in the best light possible, even if we were indeed in the wrong.
One could argue that some of these defenses are justified because we ought in general to speak up against injustice, and that Christ’s scenario was exceptional since he willingly offered himself as a sacrifice. Certainly there is a place for reasoned explanation, but there is also a “still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31–13:7) of submitting even to undeserved slights and persecutions in the meek endurance of love. And it is this I am suggesting we cultivate by imitating our Savior’s loving silence.
Christ shows us that the way of silence is the way of true humility, which is the way of love. In Mother Teresa’s list of helps to attaining the virtue of humility, the first item is “Speak as little as possible about yourself.” In our individualistic, navel-gazing society, this might effectively translate to “Speak as little as possible.” Be honest: How many of the things you say are not about yourself?
Some More (Practical) Reasons to Be Silent
Thus far we have contemplated how we might imitate the silence of Christ in our own lives, both by allowing his life to be communicated through our presence and action and by refraining from speaking in our own defense in order to practice humility. Learning how to effectively employ these Christ-like silences, however, requires that we also regularly incorporate both auditory and mental silence into our lives. These kinds of silences can yield many other good fruits as well.
Our world is starved for silence. Your phone constantly buzzes, traffic whizzes by, your kid screams, your alarm jolts you awake every morning (maybe that’s redundant), video ads play at every gas pump, and even quiet corners of the workplace have the ambient hum of an A/C unit or ventilation system. As the pace of life has quickened even as the standard of living has risen, it’s worth reflecting on the tradeoffs associated with such technological advances. The loss of prolonged periods of silence, in my opinion, is one of the most devastating.
It’s hard enough to find auditory silence in our world today, and mental silence is perhaps even more difficult to obtain (though Mother Teresa again gives us some tips on how to do this). Yet as hylomorphic beings, unions of body and soul, we require both kinds to achieve human flourishing. Here are some reasons why:
- Silence matters because to be silent means to receive, to stop imagining that the world revolves around you and to pay attention to what exists outside you, outside your body and outside your head. It means to step back in humility and listen—I mean really listen—to what others are saying to you, without jumping at the first opportunity to break into their thoughts and voice your own. It means disciplining your tongue and practicing selflessness.
- Silence means reverence. It means acknowledging and honoring reality without trying to manipulate or control it. It means accepting even difficult and trying circumstances with grace and surrender. It means making time to commune with God in the hidden place within the self, yielding renewal and abundant life.
- Silence means creativity. It means allowing our spirits time and space to process inputs, to form interior connections and mine concepts to their full richness, and to give birth to new and beautiful things.
- Silence means self-awareness. It means introspection and growing accuracy in self-knowledge, which should lead to deeper virtue and commitment to the Christian life. It means not running or distracting ourselves from the broken and hurt parts of our hearts but digging deeply for the sake of ultimate wholeness.
Here again we can turn to Christ as a model for prioritizing physical and mental silence. For 30 years before his public ministry, he labored and prayed in the quiet ordinariness of his home at Nazareth. After his baptism, he spent 40 days alone in the desert being tested and strengthened for his mission. Once he began his ministry, he often retreated to mountaintops for long nights of silent prayer alone with the Father. If we also make space for silence, we will see the many fruits listed above start to appear in our lives.
How Are You Using Your Voice?
One last thought arises from considering another portion of the Passion narrative that serves as a foil to Christ’s silence. I refer to the mob whose voices persuaded Pilate to condemn Jesus to death:
But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave sentence that their demand should be granted. —Luke 23:23–4 (emphasis mine)
Christ was crucified by the clamor of the crowd. Had we been there, would we have taken time in silence to reflect on the truth about the Man of Sorrows on the judge’s bench before lifting up our voices to call for his condemnation? Or would we be forever remembered for how we chose to use our voice that day? It is a sobering thought.
Our Lord in his sacred humanity knew how crucial silence is for our human nature. He is the best model for us to incorporate physical and mental silence into our lives and to use it for growth in virtue. Especially during this Holy Week, let us ponder the silence of the Lamb of God during his Passion:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth. —Isaiah 53:7
And then let us imitate him.