Listening to the Silence

by David Bidnell.

It’s Eastertide and time once again to make space for reflecting on stories depicting Jesus’ encounters with his disciples following his crucifixion, found mostly in chapters 20 and 21 of John’s Gospel. Among the intriguing features of these narratives are the images of silence which precede the significant conversations. The first is the silence of the empty tomb and empty linen wrappings; the second is the silence of the locked doors of the house where the disciples are gathered; the third is the silence of the empty fishing nets on Lake Tiberius. If we look more carefully, however, we begin to notice that there is a journey going on in each of these instances, a journey from “being silenced” to “silence” to the “interruption of the silence”.

The placing of the crucified Jesus in a sealed tomb is the ultimate act of silencing by the authorities. The intention is that Jesus’ voice should no longer be heard, that his attempts to change the lives of those around him for the better should be annihilated, reduced to nothing.

The doors of the house where the disciples are meeting are locked because they are frightened that the authorities might come for them too. With Jesus gone, they are now the ones being silenced.

The empty nets demonstrate the dearth of fish in the renamed Lake Tiberius, the result of overfishing by the Romans and its dire consequences for the local economy. Fish, the livelihood of local Galilean fisherfolk, find themselves silenced by scarcity.

Into these arenas of “silencing” comes the powerful force of silent protest. Mary stands outside the tomb in solidarity with her crucified rabbi. The disciples meet together as an act of courageous defiance in the face of those who would like to see them scattered, isolated and disillusioned. The empty nets of the disciples reveal a determination to get on with the tasks of fishing and living, however hard they may be.

Into these arenas of “silence”, of course, comes Jesus, ready to make his interruption. Yet the encounters are only possible because the disciples have been prepared to counter the act of “silencing” in the first place. What is it that they are saying? “You may try to separate us from our companion and teacher, but we will stand with him at his tomb.” “You may try to separate us from one another, but we will stand tall in mutual commitment and solidarity.” “You may try to separate us from our means of living, but we will do all we can to overcome.”

Perhaps the seeds of resurrection, of irrepressible life in the face of the denial of life, are sometimes to be found in listening to and engaging with the silences of life – the silences of those who do not see the point of speaking because nobody ever listens; of those who deliberately keep silent in order to give others a voice; of those whose images and stories, for one reason or another, stun us into silence and awaken our imagination.

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