Even by modern standards, 2008 was a cacophonous year. The high-stakes presidential election brought constant and clamorous media coverage, and anxiety over the mounting economic crisis dominated national and global news.
The conclusion of the election season and all its associated noise was a relief, even for those displeased with the outcome. But the economic news remains distressing, and with so much at stake, pausing to reflect before taking action has become a luxury.
In the midst of all this turmoil, few Catholics found time to follow the progress of the Synod of Bishops on the Bible that met in Rome in October. Lofty reflections on the role of Scripture in Catholic life and worship could hardly compete with more immediate political and financial concerns. But the synod’s focus on how Catholics should receive God’s word is deeply relevant in this season of Advent, when believers anticipate the birth of Christ.
Under the circumstances, Advent’s call to stillness and expectant hope can sound unrealistic. Anxious debates over current events and joyful celebrations of the holiday season leave few opportunities for quiet contemplation, a practice the synod identified as vital to “authentic hearing.” And the spirit of anticipation can be difficult to sustain in a culture where the weeks leading up to Christmas are the busiest time of year. Still, it may be helpful to recall that even the earliest and most dramatic delivery of the Advent message met with resistance. According to Luke, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was the very first to hear the good news. Unable to comprehend the angel’s message of hope, Zechariah was struck dumb. The gift of silence eventually prepared him for the birth of his son and all that it signified.
Not surprisingly, the bishops’ reflections inspired a generous outpouring of words. For the faithful, they composed a lengthy concluding “message”; to the pope, they presented fifty-five “propositions” (along with a humble request that he consider issuing his own encyclical on Scripture in the life of the church). Among the propositions was a call for wider “use of silence” during the liturgy. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal already recommends brief, reflective silences following the readings and the homily at Mass: “The liturgy of the word must be celebrated in such a way as to promote meditation. For this reason, any kind of haste which impedes recollection must be clearly avoided.” Even if the pope should endorse it, this practice may continue to be unpopular—when a church filled with people falls silent, it can feel like time is being wasted. But this silence, the synod concluded, is an important part of the process of receiving, absorbing, and responding to God’s word.
In its propositions and closing message, the synod paid particular attention to the role of the homilist at Mass. “The homily enables the word which is proclaimed to be realized,” the bishops wrote. They describe the homilist as a “prophet,” one who explains the meaning of the Scriptures and helps his listeners convert it into action. Every homily ought to recall the events of Pentecost, when the Apostles were moved by the Holy Spirit to preach. Their listeners, the bishops recall, heard the Apostles’ words and responded with a question: “What are we to do?” The silence the synod recommends after the homily is more than a pause in the action; it is an invitation to consider this question in light of the Scriptures’ message.
Observing a “moment of silence” in American public life is typically a way of accommodating prayer, or of filling the void left by its absence. Our busy society demonstrates its respect by ceasing activity and noise and holding still. Silence is our response when words fail us. This year, many causes justify such a response: the suffering of the victims of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, and Georgia; of the natural disasters in China and Burma; of starvation and cholera in Zimbabwe; of the terrorism in Mumbai. These global concerns should be held in prayer along with the needs of our local communities as Christians prepare for Christmas. The challenge for believers is not to be content with simply looking on in silence. The synod’s message, and the Scriptures of Advent, remind us to make our hearing bear fruit in action: What are we to do?
The seasons of the secular year may run counter to the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. But in the days that follow Christmas, as the noise and rush of the holiday season recedes, the conditions for quiet recollection grow more favorable. In the church’s Lectionary, the image of Zechariah, struggling with uncomprehending silence, gives way to that of Mary pondering everything in her heart.
“Let us now remain silent, to hear the word of God with effectiveness,” the synod urges. “And let us maintain this silence after hearing, so that it may continue to dwell in us, to live in us, and to speak to us.” May the silence of the last days of the year inspire all to listen more closely in the year ahead.