by Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester
‘How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given’
So goes the famous line in the carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’ And yet the wondrous gift is far from silent. Not only a baby crying in the night but a baby-grown-to-be-man who told stories, spoke words of challenge, affirmation, and rebuke, and who one day would cry out from the darkness of crucifixion.
Yet there were also times when Jesus Christ chose to be silent.
In recent weeks amid the clamour around Christmas and restrictions, and the noise of news across the world, I have also been aware of views about voices which are perceived as silent in response to different issues or opinions. And so it is that I have found myself this Advent reflecting on the ‘sound of silence’ .
As we celebrate Christmas, albeit one with rules and restrictions, we will undoubtedly hear those spine-tingling words at the opening of John’s Gospel: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). God, three-in-one, comes to be with us, and although the baby Jesus Christ cannot yet form words, he is ‘The Word’ – God’s communication with the world.
As someone who began professional life as a Speech and Language Therapist, I am passionate about communication and enabling all people, each created in the image of God, to find a voice and have a voice regardless of whether or not that involves the vocal cords. And of course, communication is about relationship and connection, and that is at the heart of who God is.
Yet in our relating and being with God, each other and creation, there is also a place for choosing silence.
One of the most life-giving times in my life was a thirty-day Ignatian silent retreat. I escaped the demands of the world and the activity of usual daily life, but I could not escape God or myself and the noise within me.
It was the Gloucestershire composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams who arranged a translation of the ancient Greek chant ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silent’ to make it into a popular hymn. The words invite us to be silent in the presence of God who comes to earth, choosing neither to be distant nor silent.
I remember when the Church of England bishops first discussed the Pastoral Principles being developed by the Pastoral Advisory Group. There was discussion around the principle of ‘Silence’ and how to present it because there was recognition that so often silence is destructive and yet at other times is deeply wise.
Silence can enable us to listen more deeply, to notice and to be taken to the deep places within ourselves to explore and discover. It can also prevent or quench the metaphorical forest fire ignited by the spark of the tongue (James 3:5). Silence can also be life-destroying.
As a bishop I am aware that I have a platform of privilege to speak and communicate. It is also true that it is not an exclusive platform as social media and digital communication allow anyone to say whatever they want, whether or not they are heard. And in the age of the sound bite, social media and quick reaction, each of us is faced each day with a choice of responding or staying silent. Either way people will make assumptions and draw conclusions.
Issues in national or church news around justice and equality such as gender violence, sexual abuse, racial justice, human sexuality, and matters of discrimination, all demand unequivocal messages regarding no one being diminished, and the need for change in institutional structures and culture. Words are required and so is action. So too is a silence which is humble, listens and refuses to add to the noise of darkness.
As we approach a very different Christmas yet celebrate the unchanging love of God revealed in the incarnation, it is not that God’s action speaks louder than words, it is rather that in the action is The Word. Here is our God who comes to be with us through the mysterious act of the birth of a vulnerable child, pointing to the day when the silence of an empty tomb will speak of hope and light which will never be overcome by the darkness.
As I live this Christmas of 2020 which not only looks different from previous years but also sounds different, I will be reflecting more deeply on knowing how and when to use my voice in 2021 and when to be silent.