Advent and the Silence of God

*Note: this post contains spoilers for the book/movie “Silence”.

Last week, I finished Shusaku Endo’s  highly acclaimed 1966 novel “Silence”, the long expected movie of which is being released next month (see the trailer here). The book was fantastic–beautifully written, hauntingly profound, and deeply thought provoking. I’m not going to discuss too much of the actual plot here, since I highly recommend reading/seeing it for yourself. Rather I want to consider perhaps the central thematic point of the story: the silence of God (thus the book’s title).

Throughout the novel, as the characters experience extreme hardships, difficulties, and suffering, often times as a direct result of their Christian faith, they are left to wonder: where is God? Where is the God in whom they have placed their trust and hope? Where is the God for whom they are currently offering their lives, having given up everything for the sake of the Gospel? Where is the God who all their lives they have been told is loving, who is supposed to care for His people, who has commanded prayer and promised to answer? Where is this God?

But they are met only with silence.

And this silence is deafening. Worse, it begins to chip away and destroy the very foundations of their faith, until at times they begin to wonder if perhaps there is no God after all? Perhaps it was all a lie? Perhaps they’ve been living a delusion their entire lives?

Silence.

In philosophical circles, this is referred to as “Divine Hiddenness”. Where is God? By His very nature, we might not expect to be able to physically see, hear, or touch God Himself; but could there not be some other way for Him to make Himself known to us? Why should there be so much uncertainty and doubt regarding His very existence? Why is it often so difficult to believe?

These are both philosophical and existential questions. The book Silence gives an existential answer: The person of Jesus Christ.

In reading some other analyzations of the novel, the most immediate questions asked/considered are: did the main character, Rodrigues, actually apostatize at the end by trampling upon the fumie (statue of Christ)? Even if so, did he really lose his faith? And did he do the right thing? (My own preliminary answers to these questions would be yes, no, and I’m not sure yet, respectively). But, important as these questions are, the book doesn’t end with them. Nor, I would suggest, was the issue of apostasy really the central question the book was trying to address. Rather, as I’ve said, the central question is that of God’s absence in the midst of overwhelming suffering, and even just generally in all of human life. Throughout the story, the priest Rodrigues continuously cries out to God, begging for something, anything, besides that dreaded silence which leads only to despair. It was only years after the narrative’s main events and the climax of his apostasy that he seems to arrive at an answer:

“. . . I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.’

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’

‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

. . .

No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege; but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. ‘Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.'” [1].

Our Lord was not silent. “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” These are the words of Christ to the spiritually tortured and broken priest.

I’d like to suggest that in the story of Silence we can discover two answers to the existential problem of God’s silence, both of which ring true in light of Advent and this week before Christmas. The answers to God’s silence are twofold:

  1. Jesus the Christ

The opening passage of the Gospel of John is a beautiful declaration of Jesus as the “Word” or logos of God. The term itself has a quite a rich conceptual and philosophical history in Greek and Jewish traditions, and, admittedly, doesn’t literally mean a “word” said aloud by God. But we can, I think, in good faith hold Christ as the Word spoken by God to man, from heaven to earth; and not a softly spoken word by a glorious shout, a thunderous roar of the Divine to the human. In Christ, everything that God is, who God is, is made flesh, walks among us, dwells among us, lives for us, dies for us. In Christ, in this human being who is “filled with the ideals and the dreams of man” [2], we really do see God, hear God, touch God, know God. Christ does not just break God’s silence, he utterly and completely undoes it. And not even an undoing, but a rendering absolutely inert, to absolute nothingness. Nothingness is to Pure Existence what God’s silence is to Christ. In Christ, there is no silence of God.

And so we can think of Advent as the hush before the shout, the holding and building up of the breath before the lungs release in joyous ecstasy their wondrous song. In the beginning God spoke His creation into being, and we know God by and through His creation. But in Christ God speaks and Himself becomes part of His creation, knitted to and within the very fabric which He erupted into existence from sheer nothingness; and in Christ we know God face to face.

But, one might say, where is Christ? He lived two thousand years ago, but where is He now? How does Christ break God’s silence to me now if Christ also is silent? Which brings us to the second answer:

2. We are the answer to God’s silence.

The very last words of the novel announce this: “Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him”. We, the image of the invisible God, the body of Christ who is our Head, his hands and feet and arms and legs, we show and reveal and declare Christ to the world. By our lives, by our actions, by our faith and love and hope, by our words. We, in Christ, and through Christ, break God’s silence; we continue the melodic shout which Christ began. When the world sees us, they (ought to) see Christ. And when they see Christ, they see God.

And so how heavy is our duty to mankind! How great a burden we bear! For if we are silent, how real would God’s silence become! If we do not wield this light to the world, what would hold back the darkness?

And yet this too is impossible. For Christ, on his “advent” to Jerusalem in the final week of his life, received the praise which was due him:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38, NIV).

And when he is rebuked for this, he responds:

“I tell you . . . if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40).

If we fail, if we are silent, the very dirt and earth will be forced to carry out our broken duty. But what a perversion that would be! We, mankind, meant to be God’s glory and image to all creation, fallen so far that the only way to hear past God’s silence is now stones on the ground, crying out the words which were meant to be our own, which were meant to be our whole life.

How heavy a duty, how great a burden, but how awesome and incomprehensible this overwhelming gift! For it is not alone that we must be the words of God to a desperate, deaf world; it is His own Spirit in and through us. As the Spirit conceived in Mary the Man Jesus Christ, God in flesh, so the Spirit conceives in us the seeds of new creation.

Throughout the novel, the character Rodrigues continually sees parallels between his own story and that of Christ’s. He comes to a foreign land to try and help and save its people, “and yet not a single one feels that he needs you” [3]. The life he lives there is lowly, and among the peasants. He is betrayed by one who is supposed to be his friend and brother. He is captured and imprisoned by the authorities. He is taunted and mocked and beaten:

“Here he was riding through the streets of Nagasaki on a horse. Another man had entered Jerusalem–likewise riding a horse. And it was that man who had taught him that the most noble expression on the face of man is the glad acceptance of injury and insult. He would preserve such an expression until the end” [4].

Finally, at his ultimate suffering, he becomes “united with that man nailed to the cross” in a kind of spiritual death, offering his own spiritual life in his apostasy to save the lives of others (whether or not Rodrigues did the right thing here is another question). And as he does so, he hears the words of Christ from the very image upon which he is trampling:

“It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross” [5].

Our Lord was not silent. “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.”

Our lives, like that of Rodrigues, are meant to mirror and reflect the words of Christ, the suffering of Christ, the love of Christ.

The silence of God is completely and totally shattered by this twofold story: The advent of Christ into the world, and the apostolic sending by Christ of the church out into the world (apostolo in Greek means literally “to send out”). So Christ says: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). But then he says also, to his followers: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Christ, the Word of God, is “the light of all mankind” (John 1:4). And we, in Christ, are likewise to be the light to all mankind. Without the apostolic sending of the church into the world to proclaim the Gospel and God’s Kingdom, the Advent itself becomes almost inert.

But in Christ, and in us through Christ, the silence of God is undone.

Advent is the holding of the breath in the lungs in delighted anticipation of the Word of God, breaking the silence of God.

Perhaps a better title of this post would be, rather than “Advent and the Silence of God”, instead “Silence and the Advent of God”.

Notes

[1]. Endo, Shusaku. Silence. Translated by William Johnston. New York: Picador Modern Classics, 1969. Print, 203-204.

[2]. Ibid., 181.

[3]. Ibid., 169.

[4]. Ibid., 167.

[5]. Ibid., 183.

 

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