On the Virtue of Holy Silence Before the Mysteries of God. A Meditation on the Silence Imposed on Zechariah

The Gospel of December 19th features the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the conception of John the Baptist. And while there are certainly many teachings to be drawn from this passage, there is perhaps some value to focus for a moment on the imposition of silence made upon Zechariah. This aspect of the story maybe a particular value since we live in time marked By a lack of reflection and silence, and of often stridently expressed opinions and opposition to the hidden things of God.

The Gospel opens with a description of Zechariah and Elizabeth being devout observers of the Law, and with the observation that they have reached their later years without having children. Zechariah, in his priestly ministry, is selected to enter the Temple and offer incense at the designated hour. Within he encounters the Archangel Gabriel who announces the birth of John the Baptist. Zechariah wonders

How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.

In this he is rebuked by Gabriel for his lack of faith and told,

You will be silent and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time. (Luke 1:19)

This rebuke causes some wonderment on our part. For it would seem that Zechariah’s response is not unlike that of the Blessed Mother who said, How will this be, since I know not man? (Lk 1:34). In our puzzlement we must remember that we have before us only a written text. We cannot hear the tone of voice that was used, or see other clues that indicate the attitude of Zechariah as he wonders how this can be. There must have been differences, for Mary’s question brings reassurance from Gabriel, Zechariah’s question draws rebuke.

Whatever the reason, let us ponder the the punishment declared by the Archangel.

In the first place, it seems that err if we regard the action merely as a punitive. Rather, we ought also to see it as a kind of remedy. In effect The Archangel draws of Zechariah into a kind of holy silence before the great mystery of the conception of John the Baptist. This silence will give him time to reflect and ponder, without speaking.

There is a human tendency to be analytical. Our intellect is central to our glory, and we have well used it to master nature, and unlock many aspects of the created world. And yet, glorious though our intellect is, it is also something over which we tend to stumble. There is a time simply to become quiet and ponder in reverent silence the fact that there are many mysteries beyond our ability to analyze or dissect.

For many, who think merely in the flesh, mysteries are something to be solved, something to be conquered. We moderns especially, presume that anything we do not currently understand, anything currently mysterious, we will one day fully understand, it is just a matter of time.

But the Christian tradition speaks more cautiously, about mystery. Mystery is something requires reverence. Mysteries are often something meant to be appreciated and respected, not merely to be set upon in order to be solved or unraveled. This is especially true with mysteries related to God, and to some extent human person.

Consider for example the mystery of your own person. You know much about yourself, but much lies hidden. Many things about us defy simple analysis, or categorization. In the face of this mystery, silence and reverence are essential. And while are insights about our inner self grow deeper with the passing years, we can never say we have conquered the mystery of our very self. Scripture says,

More tortuous than all else is the human heart, and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind (Jer 17:9-10),

And if we are to have this reverence for our very self, we must also have it for one another. We must reverence the mystery of one another, never demanding insistently to know things which are not ours to know. And we must never arrogantly presume that we have someone “figured out.” To claim this trivializes the human person.

A fortiori – If reverence and a holy silence is appropriate before human mysteries, how much more reverent must our attitude be toward the mysteries of God and his ways. Scripture in many places commands us to a kind of holy silence before the mystery of God:

  1. Silence, all people, in the presence of the LORD, who stirs forth from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:17)
  2. Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near. (Zephaniah 1:7)
  3. Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. (Psalm 46:10)
  4. Then Job answered the Lord:“I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more.” (Job 40:4-6)

And thus we see in today’s Gospel, how Zechariah has imposed upon him the kind of holy silence, that he might reflect more deeply and reverently on the mysteries of God. He is not to speak, he is to be still, silent before the Lord who stirs from His holy dwelling. Words reduce and seek to capture mystery. Zechariah is to ponder in reverent silence. Not one word will he utter until it all comes true.

Zechariah also manifests another common human tendency, the tendency to scoff at things we do not understand. Rather than to draw back and seek to learn in holy silence and docility, we scoff at how unlikely or uncertain things are. Since we cannot understand it, it cannot possibly be. Never mind that with God all things are possible, or that even our sciences have shown us things which we never dreamed possible, discoveries of processes in nature that baffle the mind.

Yes, there is a time to speak, a time to ask, and a time to open our mouth in teaching. But there is also a time to sit quietly, to listen, to learn, ponder in silence. There is a time to reverence mystery in quiet, wordless admiration. There is a time to humbly except that there are many things beyond my ability to know or understand.

In this reverent silence there comes forth kind of holy wisdom, a wisdom that is not easily reduced to words. It is the wisdom that appreciates that the acceptance of mystery, is itself insight. It is a silence that opens us upward and outward away from the more tiny world of things we have “figured out.”

And thus Zechariah is reduced by the angel to silence, a holy and reflective silence before the mysterious and merciful work of God.

And what of us who are approaching the mystery of the incarnation, and who live in a world steeped in mystery? Do we scoff and what we do not understand? Do we rush to open our mouth in doubt or ridicule, or do silently ponder and listen, seeking to be taught? Do we accept that humility both opens the door to wisdom and is a kind of wisdom itself?

Find silence before Christmas: God stirs from His holy dwelling.

14 Replies to “On the Virtue of Holy Silence Before the Mysteries of God. A Meditation on the Silence Imposed on Zechariah”

  1. The world is too noisy, we cannot hear GOD anymore. We need the deep contemplation of the mystic saints. Our GOD cannot be found in the tumult of earthquake, neither in the thunder and lightning but in the gentle breeze of HIS Magnificent Presence in the Holy Eucharist. Please we need the silence after the communion. Please give us this little space that we find HIM within us.
    Thanks for this article, I will quiet down to drown out the echoes of this confused world in myself.

  2. Good article.

    I struggle with the practice of silence and is one who likes to find a reason for everything. What had taken place in the Gospel yesterday is a reminder that I cannot always be in control. I have to let go and let God be in charge.

  3. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”–One thing is that this had already happened before, Sarah gave birth to a child at an advanced year, fulfilling God’s promise. So, Zechariah’s question implies a questioning of the entire tradition that God interacts in history.

    Before the Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to a child, the bible had already foretold that a virgin will give birth to a child. I think before Gabriel talks to her she wondered, “How can a virgin give birth to a child?” and after Gabriel talks to her she wonders, “How will I give birth to a child?” She recognizes that she is the virgin foretold by the prophet.

    Neat reflection and video, Monsignor.

  4. Wonderful reflection, esp. for when we go for Adoration tonight. My children still don’t get that it’s being in the same room with Jesus in the form of bread (real and tangible), instead of His invisible Presence (where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am present). Maybe you could write an article about how to make a good holy hour (or 20 min) for children. Mine are old enough to be quiet for an hour, and I hope they are listening to the still small voice of God.

    Like Robert, I also think Zechariah was rebuked because he was a priest and should’ve known better than to question what is possible for God. Jewish history has plenty of examples of barren women having children because it is the will of God. And I loved the image of Mary reading Isaiah and pondering at the Annunciation.

  5. It seems to me that the Blessed Virgin was not rebuked because she was an utterly different sort of creature from Zechariah. The dogma of the immaculate conception explains so much. Surely the archangel’s awe in her presence was even greater than hers for him.

    1. St. Maximilian Kolbe refers to Mary as the “quasi incarnation of the Holy Spirit”. Imagine that! She is not “true God and true woman” in hypostatic union but close! …EWTN has been showing some of the old Fr. Peyton clips. For the Annunciation, Fr. Peyton captures this mutual awe and respect between Gabriel and Mary. Mary kneels before Gabriel to receive his message; then after receiving her consent, Gabriel kneels before Mary. …I love the simplicity of the Fr. Peyton clips and how well they capture the moment.

  6. My micro reflection on this gospel episode has to do with being an instrument of good, the divine really. Zechariah was being told and used as a participant to the good news of the Messiah. This was done with a definite divine import and circumstance given the presence and agency of the archangel. Zechariah chose to respond with doubt or disbelief when the appropriate response should be one of trust & obedience. I carry this analog to our Christian life: that when we sin we forfeit our ability and credibility to reflect goodness, i.e. we are struck dumb.to witness.

  7. Today, early this morning, I have begun to discover the practice of “holy silence”. Thank-you Msgr. Charles Pope for this starter article about the need for holy silence.

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