Our Gospel reading this morning began with these words: “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way”. And in his Gospel St. Matthew goes on to tell us about Joseph. For some reason it`s he rather than Mary that grabs his attention. It`s not usually like this but clearly Matthew regards his part in the story is every bit as significant as anyone else.
Now one of the things which I associate with Joseph- and it`s linked to this perceived lack of attention that we generally give him- is that if you look, or should I say listen carefully, Joseph actually says nothing throughout the whole nativity story. Now this may have passed you by- and I certainly hadn`t noticed it until I came across this rather beautiful phrase: Someone once spoke of Jesus as “The adopted son of silence”.
It seems to me that on the one hand this says something about the physical or literal silence of Joseph but also, I think, it draws us into the nature of silence itself which, I want to suggest is at the heart of our formation in faith. It`s through silence that, if you will, `the birth of the Messiah takes place”.
I have to say from the outset of course that I haven`t missed the irony of speaking about silence and I`m also aware of what a challenge silence sometimes poses. A challenge not lost on our critics. I think it was E.M. Forster in the novel `A Passage to India` who has a character refer to “Poor little talkative Christianity” And `talkative` of course is a word which carries associations with the kind of speech which covers over the fear which the prospect of silence sometimes induces in us.
I mean for instance, one of the first reactions many people have to the prospect of a quiet day or a retreat is a mild panic as to how they would cope with the silence. Not for us the notion of silence as something filled with anticipation or calm- rather we baulk at its perceived awkwardness, emptiness or indeed its associations with loneliness. And of course our personal history may lie behind some of these responses but if we leave it at that. If we simply let ourselves get away with a cursory “well that`s not for me” I believe we`re missing out on something profoundly important, part of our faith tradition and as the story of Joseph suggests the context in which Christ may come to birth in us.
Now, nothing I say this morning is meant to dampen the enthusiasm of those who express their life of faith with exuberance and joy or have the gift of talking ten to the dozen- God loves them. I suppose I`m putting in a plea for a less monochromatic faith; an awareness of the importance of light and shade of quiet reflection as well as exuberance. And I think it helps if we can begin by becoming aware of exactly how far we have become soaked in noise of one sort or another. It was first brought home to me many years ago on emerging from a 30 day silent retreat. After such an extended period of silence one came to appreciate how all pervasive the noise is; and not just the noise that surrounds us- I`m talking of the noise within.
For example, It`s not only those who have had too much to drink who wander along the street talking to themselves- carrying on a dispute with a real or imagined adversary. Those of you who have suffered with tinnitus- that ringing in the ears will know exactly what I mean. I`m talking about that incessant background noise of life; it`s anxieties and fears that resemble a sort tinnitus of the soul.
For some strange reason at this time of year I identify quite strongly with the words of one of our best loved Carols, “Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife and hear the angels sing”. It`s not for nothing that Jesus constantly says things like “You who have ears to hear- then hear”. And so as someone who is an avid listener to music- and somewhat loudly at that -I continually have to check myself and remind myself of the importance of silence if I am going to hear the `still small voice of our God`. So I`m suggesting this morning that the silence of Joseph acts as an invitation to pray with our relationship with silence.
So firstly then I wonder how you feel about silence? How comfortable are you with it? One of my favourite verses in the Psalms reads, “For God alone my soul in silence waits”. You see the silence into which we are invited as people of faith is, if you will, the silence of communion, of relationship and of meeting. Few of us, I think really grasp that this is at the heart of prayer. As someone put it “the hour of prayer is not for thinking much but for loving much”.
In other words prayer is more akin to that ease with which we can sit quietly with a friend or spouse where there is no need for speech; or perhaps the silence that creates space, that is happy to wait for them to speak first.
Secondly, Joseph takes us into that place where the silence is not all that it should be. He presents us with the silence that masks a certain fear or uncertainty. I mean, his idea that he might put Mary away `quietly` is an example of that silence which ought to be speech. It`s the silence where we worry more about what others will think if we express an opinion or give away our feelings. When you hear someone say: “Oh you should have said” what they`re getting at is a disappointment that our relationship with them is so unformed or lacking I trust. In other words we couldn`t trust them with who we are. So here we`re asked to pray about what we might be `putting away quietly` at the moment. I mean, is there anything, I wonder which you feel you could not speak to the Father about? Is there something you ought to say to someone; is there something you regret not sharing with someone whilst they were still alive? You see this is the kind of silence which is about evasion.
But thirdly, the discipline of silence can actually be quite liberating. One of the fascinating things about going on a silent retreat with a group of people is the sheer pleasure of being together and not having to make conversation. It`s funny how over time you come to anticipate who needs the salt passing to them at meal times and how at the end of your five or six days a deep sense of community can be formed.
Similarly, a colleague of mine once said that he`d watched the former Archbishop Rowan Williams deal with the media. And he said that one of the fascinating things about him is the way he doggedly refused to play the media game. That`s to say he firmly believed that just because someone puts a microphone in front of you it doesn`t mean you have to say something”. Now, my friend found this quite frustrating; wanting him, as it were to make an impact but such silence- not `needing` to say something; and freedom from compulsive speech is a powerful witness.
Perhaps you`ll remember that it was said of Christ during his trial, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you”. Those who murdered Christ were perplexed at his silence. St Peter says: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly”. (1 Peter 2.23)
But one of the fruits of silence is the freedom to let God be the one who justifies. We don`t need to straighten others out. There is a story of a medieval monk who was being unjustly accused of certain offences. One day he looked out of the window and saw a dog biting and tearing on a rug that had been hung out to dry. As he watched the Lord said to him “That is what is happening to your reputation. But if you trust me, I will care for you- reputation and all`. And that`s it isn`t it? How dearly we desire to let others hear our side of the story. But the example of Christ is of one who refused to justify himself. How easy do you find it to keep silence in the face of misunderstanding or even mild abuse?
Again, our Gospel reading this morning began with these words: “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” and I offer you today not `this is what you must think` but the invitation to explore further what relationship you have with silence- as the place where the Christ may be known. In other words, what might it mean for you to be still before the Lord and to wait upon him? Could you come to recognise and experience silence as the place of communion and meeting with him? What things are you inclined to put away quietly? Where do you, as we say `avoid the issue` and keep silence when something needs saying? Could you come to experience the liberation of not having to say something?