Monday, December 19, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent 2016 - "Silent no more"

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Luke 1:26-38

“The Lord is our Father and loves us deeply, even when His silence is incomprehensible”.  Pope Benedict XVI

There is a lot of history, obviously, in the 400 years of silence between the recorded end of the First Testament period and the beginning of the New, a lot of history leading up to the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd century BC – and leading up to Messiah’s birth.  There is also theological speculation about the significance of this period of silence or whether there is meaning at all. 

I believe there must be deep meaning in the Silence which suggests there is no silence after all; there is only a lack of written material in the Bible. 

I mention the Maccabean Revolt because the books of the Apocrypha (extrabiblical books included in the so-called Catholic Bible) include the books of the Maccabees which tell of this significant period.  There is meaning for Christians because even as we think there was this period in which the Heavens were silent, it was actually a time when The Lord had the most to do.

In 168 BC (and a lot happened to lead to this point), the ruler of the Syrian kingdom (Antiochus Epiphanes IV) stepped up his campaign to wipe out Judaism (foretold by the prophet Daniel 400 years earlier) so that everyone in his empire — which included the Land of Israel — would share the same culture and worship the same gods.  So it was “game on” for the Israelites and the Maccabees who would stand strong to not only cleanse the Temple which had been profaned by unholy worship practices (including the slaughter of swine); they would also stand to protect Israel from this unholy encroachment.

Long story short, you are familiar with the menorah, the six-pronged candle holder described in Exodus 25:31-40 (modern day version has eight – for a reason).  The Temple had only enough oil to keep the candles burning for a single day, but the Presence of The Lord kept the Light burning for eight days, long enough to finish what the Maccabees had begun.  And so in 164 BC began the Jewish observance of Hanukkah which, incidentally, begins this year at sunset on December 24, a remembrance of Divine Light in one of Israel’s darkest periods.  (Though Hanukkah must not be confused with Christmas or be considered the “Jewish Christmas”, there are certain theological parallels regarding darkness and Divine light!)

There are other extrabiblical accounts, ancient books not considered canonical (authoritative) but still offer many stories by which it seems clear that through the supposed “Silent Period”, the world stage was being set for the Messianic Age.  Just as we must never think Jesus just “popped up” from nothing, neither did the Blessed Mother nor Joseph.  We have enough prophecy and history to know our God had not forgotten His people nor had He turned a blind eye or a deaf ear to His Created Order.  Quite the contrary, history and nature were continuing to unfold in what would come to be known as “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

Silence can sometimes seem awkward in certain circumstances, but silence is also an underappreciated discipline and is even more so in our hyper-stimulated culture in which many of us – certainly our children - cannot seem to take more than a few steps away from cell phones or other electronic devices without going into convulsions.  We’ve lost our capacity for contemplation, our ability to think in silence while giving The Lord time and space in which to speak!  We’ve surrendered our ability to listen!

There have been (and still are) periods in religious history in which it was debated about any particular issue the Bible seems “silent” about – and whether that silence has meaning.  

For instance, many suggest Jesus never specifically condemned homosexuality.  Well, that observation is limited in its scope in looking only for specific words while overlooking all else.  Jesus Himself claimed to be “the Law and the prophets fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17) – meaning “Torah” (what we Christians typically refer to as “Law”) is still very much the Book of The Lord’s people.  It is alive and well … in Eternity.  This is consistent with the Gospel of John which describes Jesus as “The Word which became flesh” (John 1:14), that very same Eternal “Word which was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1). 

The point, of course, is not human sexuality – not even a little bit.  The point is to show how we try to rearrange The Divine Narrative by speaking in the silence instead of listening to the Spirit of the Word in that silence.  We often fail to realize these periods of silence may be among The Lord’s greatest gifts – and perhaps His most rigorous tests to determine whether we will “wait patiently” (Psalm 37:7).

Some scholars and theologians say that whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture (preceded by “Thou shalt not …”) is allowed; others say anything not specifically authorized is not permitted.  During the early Reformation period, Martin Luther (1483-1546) taught that “whatever is without the word of God is, by that very fact, against God”, usually citing biblical admonitions not to take away from or add to the Divine revelation of the Word (Deuteronomy 4:2; Joshua 1:7; Proverbs 4:27; Revelation 22:18).

Gradually, however, Luther and other reformers softened their stands, more often than not in an effort to accommodate the dominant culture much like the Church seems determined to do today, catering to the culture rather than ministering to the people who cannot comprehend the Silence just as the “Darkness could not comprehend (or overcome) the Light” (John 1:5). 

Yet few seemed mindful of the wisdom of the Scriptures in which it is written in the Proverbs, “There is a way that seems right, but it is the way of death” (16:25) – meaning “a way” which may fit our culture’s narrative or satisfy our own desires, but it may also stray from the Divine Narrative spoken in Eternity … and heard only in the Silence.  And is always consistent with the Written Word.

All this is to suggest this perceived silence is perhaps when The Lord speaks most clearly, but we cannot hear The Lord in the midst of the all the cultural noise nor in our mind’s demands to have our own way or to be constantly entertained or stimulated.  If the discipline of the Advent season teaches us anything, it is the discipline to “be still before The Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7).

In the Catholic tradition there is much more to Mary than that she was only Joseph’s future bride.  According to ancient sources (Protevangelium), Mary had been given over to service in the Temple by her mother, St. Anne, just as the prophet Samuel had been given over to the Temple by his mother, Hannah, for her gratitude in being able to bear a child against the odds (1 Samuel 1:20-28).  Once Mary reached the age of female maturity, however, she could not stay in service in the Temple.  The priests, then, chose Joseph from among all eligible men to take her as his bride (there is yet another miracle attributed to the selection of Joseph, but I don’t want to digress).

The point being made is to suggest that as the stage was being set, Mary had been disciplined and prepared to “wait patiently”, having been in service to The Lord in the Temple for the first 12-14 years of her life.  And clearly she had been deemed worthy to bear this Most Remarkable Gift just as Joseph had been deemed worthy to care for and protect Mary and The Child. 

During this most intense period of silence before the record of the New Testament, The Lord was setting the stage for the redemption of Israel and the entire human race, and The Lord would need serious actors capable of and willing to not only hear Him but submit themselves entirely to His instruction which could only be fully revealed in the Silence.  Think of Joseph’s dreams.

The last of the New Testament is believed to have been written somewhere around 70AD-80AD.  What does this say to New Covenant people in 2016 and beyond?  That The Lord has stopped speaking to us?  That we are allowed to make up new stuff to fit our own chosen narrative?  That we cannot seem to function without explicit, printed instructions?

None of this can be true because the assurance we live with is Jesus’ assurance of Perpetual Presence made manifest at Pentecost when the Spirit would “remind us of all Jesus had taught” (John 14:26). 

The Lord’s people have not been abandoned nor forsaken, for the Spirit of The Lord is never silent.  And though “heaven and earth will pass away, [the Word of The Lord] shall never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). 

The Eternal Word of The Eternal God will endure long after the created order has faded away – but only in the stillness of our hearts and the silence of our minds will we be able to hear it.  “Be still, and know that I am The Lord!  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”  Psalm 46:10-11

The Lord be with us now and forever.  Amen.

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