The Power of Silence

Last Pentecost, Reign of Christ Sunday, C
John 18:33-37

In the name of the God of majesty and the God of mystery.  Amen.


I had a teacher once who could command a room with silence.

We were studying Orthodox Liturgies of Holy Week and Easter as they are practiced in Jerusalem, and he would begin every lecture like that.  Standing still in the front of the room.  Looking every student in the eye.  The silence was awkward at first, but he would hold it until it bloomed into gripping silence.

And then, something provocative, spoken gently, that would draw us in: “For Orthodox Christians,” he said, “knowing what is said in church is much less important than knowing what to do in church.”  And then a lecture that would open up a new world.

That was the Rev. Cn. Hugh Wybrew.  Priest of the Church of England.  Canon of Gibraltar.  Professor in Queens College at Oxford University.  Advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury on matters of liturgy and ecumenical relations.  He is a man who has plenty of room to claim authority.  But he doesn’t use his titles or his prestige to claim authority.  He doesn’t use his degrees or his affiliations to command respect.  Instead, he uses silence to get attention.  And then wisdom and insight to keep it.

I thought of Cn. Hugh this week because it seems that this “Reign of Christ” Sunday – the last Sunday of the liturgical year – it seems to have come from out of nowhere.  We were wandering along, happily listening to Jesus’ teachings; and suddenly, here we are, crouched with Jesus on the stone pavement, silently waiting for the future to unfold.  Silently waiting for crucifixion.  He is answering Pilate’s questions about being a king, but not with brass fanfares, or fine robes, or courts of attendants to assist him.  He answers Pilate with silence.  With authority.  He answers him with a display of power more intimidating than the traditional trappings of leadership could ever convey.

And that’s what this time of year feels like – a spring winding so tightly that we wait for it to bust – but instead of busting, it just moves on to more silence.  More anticipation, but quieter anticipation.  The climax of the year explodes, but gently, like a puff of air, back into the beginning.

It can be hard to remember it, but this is the way Jesus would have it.  Though this year – another year of pandemic – has been a bit more muted than most, even so, it has still been a year of worship.  It has still been a year of reflecting on the majesty of God – of trying to feel and reflect the majesty of God in our own lives.  And now, on this day when we celebrate the Reign of Christ over all creation, we don’t get images of him sitting on a padded throne with a jeweled crown and velvet robes.  We get an image of him submissively crouched on the ground at the feet of a man with earthly power, but even so, displaying more power than the leader could ever imagine.

We go from crucified king, back to anticipating the defenseless baby who would be born into relative poverty and obscurity.

Earlier this week, in the service on Thursday, we celebrated the memory of the 7th century abbess, Hilda of Whitby.  The gospel lesson for that day was the story of some of the disciples asking Jesus what they’ll get out of following him.  Will they get crowns, and thrones, and power?  Jesus tells them yes.  They will get thrones.  But they will be thrones of judgement.

In the reflection that we read that day, the writer reminded us that this isn’t a story of rewarding the faithful, it’s a story of entrusting the faithful.  The disciples were not meant to just enjoy the trappings of power and glory, but they were being entrusted with the responsibility of leadership.  It’s another example of how God takes our expectations: of power, of riches, of leadership, of faith – and shakes them up.  Forcing us to look at the world in a new way.

But this shake up isn’t just for the fun of it.  God isn’t just toying with us, enjoying our frustration and disorientation.  God is showing us that the world can be different than we’ve currently got it arranged.  God is showing us how the world can be different.  Power and leadership can look different than we tend to expect.  Perhaps they should look different than we tend to expect.

In a world where shouts and clanging cymbals constantly demand our attention; where flashing lights and dancing figures pull us from perspective to perspective, without ever really seeing – in that kind of world, this kind of world, standing silently, standing still, making a connection, and then communicating something important – there is real power in that.  But even more so, there is real value in that.  And there is real responsibility in that.

Christians aren’t always called to be waving our hands in the air.  We’re not always called to be the center of attention.  But we are very often called to lead.  We are very often called to take on the responsibility of this faith – a responsibility to see and to care and to do beyond ourselves.  Sometimes this faith means stepping off of our thrones – out of our places of comfort – and making connections where we’re less comfortable, but more called.

I’m grateful to have studied under Cn. Hugh for a short time.  I’m grateful to have learned the contents of his course, but also a little more about leading in the way of Jesus.  Not for our glory, but for the mission of God.  Amen.