The moment of silence has always been for me the most centering and powerful part of any memorial service I have attended. More than a speech, more even then music, it is that silent minute, that brings our witness so clearly into focus. It is not that we are left to rattle our own thoughts around in our heads – after all that is just another kind of noise. Silence gets its power from what we don’t hear. It cues our brains that something has happened, or that something is happening.
As parents, we joke that when we can’t hear our kids in the playroom we know they are up to something. Think of how many times you have glanced up at the television from whatever you were doing because it suddenly went silent; clever advertisers know the power of 30 seconds without noise. When we stand at a grave or a monument, silence marks the voices we can’t hear anymore. Silence is final, and yet, in another way, infinite. It is elegant; it is the contrast to our banging, blaring, roaring days.
Amid the quiet contemplation of Lent, Palm Sunday is one of those banging, blaring days. It’s the crowd that get’s all the attention. The entire scene is noisy; the people parading through the street, laying down their palms in the dust, chanting their hosannas. This was a party; the answer to their prayers was coming to town – they expected Jesus to topple the Roman power, and make their earthly plight better. They were going to make a joyful noise. Suddenly they had reason to celebrate – and who could blame them? Life was tough, and they were honouring Jesus in the way they could.
But in the middle of that celebration, there is Jesus, riding humbly, as the gospel tells us, on a donkey. We hear nothing from him. We don’t imagine him working the crowd, firing them up with some rousy speech – indeed, it is often understood from the gospel that he never wanted this spectacle in the first place, that the disciples were behind it. Jesus slips through the parade, separate but surrounded by the crowd; in one way, he almost seems secondary to the celebration itself. He is the silence to their noise, the quiet to their rabble. Even if we didn’t know what was coming, even if we didn’t know how quickly the festive mob turns ugly, this silent Jesus is our cue that something is happening.
But that’s the thing about the Jesus; he is often quiet when we would like him to be loud, when we would like him to use some of the power of God against his enemies, and against ours. But Jesus teaches us that there must be a balance between when and why we make noise, and when we respond with silence – in whatever struggle we find ourselves facing, at home or in the world. Noise and silence; in one way, that is the story of Palm Sunday – and of Holy Week – boiled down to its essence. The noise rings in our ears. But the silence is more powerful.
Throughout the gospel, as we have explored this Lent, we hear of Jesus responding to all manner of injustice, sometimes by being forceful, but more often by treading lightly. Shout too much, and even if your cause is just, you’ll begin to sound shrill. Keep silent for too long and your cause is dead. When you consider the ministry of Jesus, as recorded for us, it is remarkable how clever he was at walking that line.
When the merchants had turned the temple into a mall, where they could prey on the poor, Jesus made noise: he shook the walls with his shouts and crashed tables to the ground. He needed to be heard over the everyday din of the shopping and haggling, he wanted to stop people in their tracks.
But when he stepped up to stop the stoning of the woman who was accused of adultery, he did so quietly; “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” he said softly. He did not throw stones back at the men who had gathered, who had worked themselves into a frenzy; he did not try to intimidate them with a tongue lashing. With a quiet word, he forced them to consider their deed, and their motives; he starred them down with silence. And in fact, that’s how we are now advised to react should we ever encounter a domestic dispute: since interjecting more forcefully often inflames the situation, staring in silence forces the attacker to hopefully amend his own behaviour, knowing he has an audience.
But silence, especially when we feel wronged personally, is often the hardest response. We do it all the time: we refuse to back down in an argument, we rail on to our friends and coworkers when some driver cuts us off on the way to work. We are usually the most determined to make noise for our own cause; we shout that much harder when we have a personal stake. The noise we make on behalf of strangers lacks the same passion. You have only to look back to that Palm Sunday crowd; all fun and frivolity when they thought they had it made with Jesus. But when Jesus was handed over, and the mob had turned against him, where were his fans then? They were mute.
Think about it: when did Jesus ever make noise for his own sake? I can think of only one time. On most every occasion, when he spoke up, it was for others, and for us. Certainly he does not come to his own defence, when confronted by Pontius Pilate, who is clearly unsettled by his silence; you get the feeling that if Jesus had fought back, and tried to establish his idenity, that Pilate would have had an easier time making the call to crucify him. He remains silent bearing the weight of the cross, and holds to that silence, later when one of the criminals hanging at his side, jeers at him to prove his power by saving himself. His one cry, for himself, is a prayer to God, a plea to feel God’s presence, and even that, only after enduring hours of agony.
Noise and Silence; as people of God we must take care to find the balance between these two actions, to thoughtfully consider, as Jesus did, when one should give way to the other. We weaken God’s mission when we are silent in the act of injustice; but silence, as Jesus proved, is not always weak. It can make people see their own wrongs; just as silencing ourselves can make us see our own mistakes. And more than that, following the example of Jesus who stole moments alone to pray, silence makes room for the voice of God to be heard – especially when we are too distracted by noisiness to think God is speaking.
After all, we are about to rejoice in God’s most powerful act, God’s response to the careless noise of Palm Sunday, and the angry noise of Good Friday, God’s response to all the shouting that frustrates our own lives. Is God’s answer more noise? No, God responds with the deepest silence of all, and gives us the gift of Joy: the silence of the empty tomb discovered by Mary on that third day.
But let’s get back to that crowd – who had every reason to celebrate – just as we do this Palm Sunday. Jesus riding on the donkey, cautions us to notice the silent people among us, for whom few make noise. He teaches us that there is power when we are still, and listening for God. Noise and silence; celebration and contemplation. Let us wave the palms, but focus our thoughts this week on the silent figure riding the donkey.