Sound is an indicator of life and energy. “Sound signals the present use of power, since sound must be in active production to exist at all.” Things don’t have to be alive to make themselves visible, and “a primitive hunter can see, feel, smell, and taste an elephant when the animal is quite dead.” Sound is different: “If [the hunter] hears an elephant trumpeting or merely shuffling his feet, he had better watch out. Something is going on. Force is operating” (Walter Ong). Water in a glass is silent, but once it’s energized it makes noise; it becomes what the Bible calls “living water.” Living things remain visible and tangible long after they are dead; you can smell them and, if you want, you can taste them. But corpses make no sound.
God is absolute energy, three-personed Power, and His presence is accompanied by a great noise. He comes to the garden in the Spirit of the day and calls Adam with a voice of thunder. He descends to Sinai with a sound like a trumpet that gets louder and louder and louder until the people and the mountain tremble. To Ezekiel, His voice is a crashing sound of many waters. When He appears to John in Revelation, Jesus speaks with the voice of a trumpet, and He comes from heaven as a Strong Angel roaring like a lion. “The voice of Yahweh is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, Yahweh is over many waters. The voice of Yahweh is powerful, the voice of Yahweh is majestic. The voice of Yahweh breaks the cedars; yes Yahweh breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox . . . . The voice of Yahweh shakes the wilderness . . . the voice of Yahweh makes the deer to calve and strips the forests bare.” God is boundless life, and therefore He is boundless sound.
Creation begins in sound. Out of the darkness, the God who is Eternal Word breathes out a “Let there be,” and there is – a heavens and earth, light, a firmament, water and dry land, fruit trees and grains, sun, moon, and stars, teeming creatures of the sea and sky, cattle and the beasts of the field, every last thing a residue of the Creator’s speech. And all creation echoes the Creator’s voice. Waves crash, streams ripple, winds whistle and whisper and roar, lightening crackles and thunders, planets harmonize. At the climax of creation, God forms a creature in His image and likeness, who can not only bellow and roar and twitter and screech and bark and mew and sing, but can, like his Creator, shape breath into speech.
Into this world of resounding praise comes death. By one man’s sin, death enters the world, and silence through death, and so silence spread to all men. The “wicked are silenced in darkness” (1 Samuel 2:9). Eerie silence is the gravestone marking a once-great city, judged for its sin – no voice of joy or voice of gladness, no voice of the millstone, no voice of the bridegroom or voice of the bride. But the grave threatens the righteous just as much. “Let me not be put to shame, O Lord, for I call upon you,” David cries out. “Let the wicked be put to shame, let them be silent in Sheol” – let them be silent, not me . The dead do not praise Yahweh, nor do any who go down into silence (Psalm 115:17). If Sheol has any sounds at all, they are howls and gibbers and shrieks and ugly laughter, but never praise. “Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Abaddon? Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness, and Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (Psalm 88:11-12).
And then, to this world under the dominion of silence comes the loud and living God, but what He does here leaves the world in silent awe. The one who said “I am the resurrection and the life” goes to the grave. The eternal Word falls silent. The Savior who loosed the tongue of the speechless is dumb like a sheep before the shearers. The God who is eternal Voice because He is eternal Power lies for three days quiet in the tomb. God the Son makes the words of Psalm 88 His own: “I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength, adrift among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand.”
What Chesterton said about the cry of dereliction applies too to Holy Saturday: “When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” Atheists murmur about the silence of God, but the gospel got there long before. No other faith confesses that God is eternal Word, but no other faith confesses that the eternal Word went silent.
God is Lord of light; everyone says that. But that’s not much help to me, since I’m groping in the dark. God is the Word; every Christian knows that. But I can hardly hear His voice if I’m already tipping halfway into the silence of the grave. If God is going to be my Lord, He has to be Lord of light and dark, of life and death. If He is going to rescueme , He’s got to come to me in my silence. It’s not enough for Him to have first place in creation. He has to be the firstborn of the dead, so that in all things He might be preeminent. Creation began with a voice from the darkness, and creation can only be remade if the grave becomes articulate, only if God’s Voice breaks out from the silence of death. Hence the incarnation: The Son took flesh to become Lord of death, to be Jesus, the Dark Lord. The Son entered the grave to grab the keys of death and Hades. The Word died to become the Lord also of silence.
Lent is the mystery of God’s silence, and it is a great mystery. But the Son of God cannot claim Sheol as its Lord without turning death upside down. Death cannot hold Him; He is too big. Silence cannot muzzle the eternal Word, not forever. His descent is harrowing for Hades. Jesus rises from the grave chatty as ever, dispelling fear, reassuring doubters, commissioning disciples, teaching everything concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. Even more, He twists death inside out, just by the fact of tasting death and submitting to its silence. He removes the sting, and death becomes a gate to new life; death ceases to be the end and becomes a new beginning; he cuts a backdoor in the tomb, so that it becomes a passageway.
And because He goes to Sheol as the Voice of the Father, He wrings praise from the tomb. As the women enter the tomb on Easter morning, an angel speaks: “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here.” Psalm 88 asks, “Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” Easter answers with a resounding Yes! The grave is no longer silent. His wonders are proclaimed in the tomb. The dead do praise Him. The voice of the Yahweh thunders, thunders now even in the grave, and Death joins everything in the temple of the world to cry “Glory!”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House. “God Gone Silent” is a meditation from Holy Saturday, 2011.
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