God in the sound of silence

On Saturday, I conducted a wedding for a couple where the man was my age and the woman about 10 years younger. They were sealing a friendship which had already lasted many years, and it reminded me that true marriage is not about love as the world thinks of it – a feeling that takes you over – but about love as Christians think of it – a steady ongoing care and concern for others. Normally, for younger couples, I preach quite strongly on this theme – that love is an act of will NOT a feeling – but it was great to relax with this couple and celebrate love in a rather different way.

We humans easily get overwhelmed by our feelings don’t we? That’s why some people  stop coming to Church or even stop believing in God. They are looking for the wrong kind of God. Those who stop coming to Mass often say that they have stopped because they don’t get anything out of it; but what they mean is that they don’t feel they are getting anything out of it. It’s why some people turn to a more happy clappy Christianity which appeals to their feelings. But mostly Mass is not like that. God is present quietly, and comes to us like that, and we have to take that on trust without necessarily feeling anything.

In a similar way, those who don’t believe in God say “Show me this God, and then I will believe.” They think that because we Christians talk about God as a massive power, which he is, then they should feel God like that. They don’t understand that if God did reveal his power like that, we and they would have no choice but to believe – it would be so overwhelming. God chooses instead mostly to be with us simply and quietly, and that’s because God wants us to love him freely, not  to be forced to obey because we are overwhelmed. This is because God is love, and true love is not a feeling that overwhelms us, but a quiet trust that lasts all through life.

Both our 1st Reading (1 Kings 19:9-13) and our Gospel (Matt 14:22-33) express this truth for us today. Elijah, hiding in the cave, wonders if God is in these powerful natural forces that make him feel afraid – the wind, the earthquake or the fire. The Reading says God was not in any of these, but what it surely means is that God did not show himself through any of these, for God is actually in all things unless they are evil. In doing this God is surely showing Elijah the relationship he wants with him, and so (as we all know) he reveals himself in what our translation calls “a gentle breeze”. Other translations have it as “a sound of sheer silence.”, which is rather good. Think what silence sounds like! But those of us who know the hymn that tells this story, will know it best as the “Still small voice of calm”. Each translation is an attempt to convey something of the wonder of the way God talked to Elijah, and talks to us.

The Gospel presents the same message in a different way, when Jesus appears to the disciples when they are “battling with a heavy sea”. Impulsive Peter, as usual, wants to be part of the action. At last, he thinks, Jesus is revealing his real power. Now no-one can doubt him, and all this talk of suffering and dying can be swept away. So now Peter decides to test his theory. Note what he says “If it is you.” Jesus then allows Peter to learn a hard lesson, that God is not a powerful magician who can throw some protective shield over us, so that we can be like Superman or Wonderwoman. Peter has to sink, almost to drown, and to learn that he will find God in his weakness not in his strength. He has to learn, as we do, that we need saving, that we need to cry out as he did “Lord save me”.  And then comes a gentle hand, so gentle that we may not feel it, and yet is there, so gentle that it is a sound like silence, a still small voice, which tells us simply to trust, to have faith even in our darkest moments. 

Our 2nd Reading today (Romans 9:1-5) appears to have no connection with this theme at all. But actually it has. Paul is agonizing about his fellow Jews who cannot see that the Jesus who has died on the cross is the culmination of all their hopes, that he is the still small voice that Elijah heard so long before. Sadly most of them are still looking for a God who will show his power in a way that no-one can withstand. Only a few Jews realise the different way of Jesus. Supreme among them of course, is that simple Jewish girl whose day we celebrate on Tuesday. Mary, Our Lady, knew this. She knew that her strange quiet son was a full revelation of her God. She trusted in this even when everything went dark as she stood at the foot of the cross and still believed, whilst all his disciples but John had run away. This is why Mary is a model for all of us, of simple trust, and why we ask her regularly to pray for us, that we may have the faith she had, and thus come with her one day to see the glory, that for now is veiled from our sight.