"Jacob Wrestling with Angel" by Rembrandt

“Jacob Wrestling with Angel”
by Rembrandt

From the cross Jesus cried with a loud voice, “ Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.” The people were startled by this cry of dereliction. Some thought it might be a sign of God’s imminent intervention. “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.”

A loud cry. A last breath. Silence.

In a Good Friday hymn text, Martin Luther declared that God died on the cross. The notorious atheist Friedrich Nietzsche turned these words of devotion into the polemic, “God is dead.” In response, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer affirmed that the God-made-in-our-own-image, the Sunday school God of pat answers, is indeed dead. Bonhoeffer asserted that we are being called to let the graven image of God die, so that we can embrace true mystery.

A loud cry. A last breath. Silence.

On the cross, God entered death. Jesus descended into hell, the place of dead silence. He harrowed hell, preparing those who had died for resurrection. In breathing his last Jesus prepared to receive us when we enter that great silence.

With his last breath, Jesus baptized silence, impregnating it with majestic wonder. However uncomfortable we may be with silence, the crucified Jesus calls us to follow him. He invites us to receive the gift of the One who dwells within silence. Even though our culture encourages us to avoid it, God summons us from the cross to embrace holy silence.

Through his death, Jesus offers us a silence in which there are no answers, only the awe-inspiring presence of the holy One. It is a silence in which we are emptied, just as Jesus was emptied on the cross. It is the silence of mystery that leads us into all faith. It is the silence of wonder that fills us with unspeakable hope. It is the dread silence of love…in which God both comforts and confronts us.

While being trained to shape and preside over the liturgy, priests are taught to incorporate silence, and to carefully cultivate a congregation’s appreciation for silence. The Eucharistic rite stipulates silence at the breaking of the bread. The Fraction is the sacramental moment of Jesus’ death. At that moment we silently participate in the breaking of his body, so that we may consume his resurrected body and his life-giving blood.

During my sabbatical retreat I befriended silence for almost forty days. It was a rich time of spiritual nurture, but also a season of spiritual battle. The Rembrandt painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel became a symbol of dwelling in silence. The angel’s face in that painting expresses God’s compassion and love, even while wounding Jacob. In the same way God smiles upon us while calling us to die with Jesus Christ.

A loud cry. A last breath. Silence.

The God of death and resurrection meets us in the silence of our own life, especially in the silence of the wrestling by which God breaks our pride and overcomes our fear. Even now God invites us to the spiritual battle of standing up to the shallow hosannas and angry shouts of others.

Having spent all those weeks in silence and solitude, I’m only just beginning to appreciate the holiness of God’s silence. The drama of this Holy Week leads us deeper into this mystery. Let us join Mary, John, and the hushed crowd at the foot of the cross. Let us enter the fearful silence of God. For Jesus will lead you, my friend, all the way to the silent tomb in which life overwhelms death with unspeakable awe and triumphant love.

The Rev. Rick Matters, preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel