The End of Words: A Zechariah Advent

The End of Words: A Zechariah Advent December 21, 2016

Thanks to the magic of Facebook pop-up memories, I revisit the posts of Christmas Past on a pretty regular basis. The last few weeks’ flashbacks have shown me that, every year around this time, I have a viral blog post. Almost like clockwork, I write some clever ode to terrible Christmas music, a survival guide for clergy with young children, or a snarky diatribe about the so-called War on Christmas. According to the calendar, I am due for such a post right about now.

But this is not going to be it.

In fact, there might not be one at all this year. Because ‘viral’ pieces have certain qualities: they are either ‘click bait’ posts about a hot topic that is already trending; or they contain just the right balance of wisdom and smart-ass wit to grab the attention of like-minded people. Or, they articulate the perfect response to a shared seasonal experience. And at the moment, I have no patience for trendy click bait; I am not feeling particularly witty or wise; and, if you can believe it, I am fresh out of snark. In fact, I am running low on words in general these days.

This is a learning place for me, because I have rarely encountered this particular phenomenon. Words come naturally and easily to me. They are my friends. They comfort me in hard times. When I’ve used all my familiar words, I learn some new ones, or find new ways to use the old ones. At any given moment, I usually have a sermon, a book chapter, a couple blog posts and a strongly worded email to an adversary all swirling around my head together. Like visions of sugar plums and whatever. I just have to reach up and grab the right combo from the swirling chaos.

But this year is different. This year, I’ve been having a Zechariah kind of Advent. I don’t mean the fiery OT prophet Zechariah. I’m talking father of John the Baptist, small supporting role in the nativity, could not believe his ears when he heard some good news and was stricken silent on the spot Zechariah. That guy. His is the role I’m playing in the Christmas story this year, and it’s a new one for me.

Silence has never been my default mode.

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But in the wake of recent events, I find that all my words–even my best words–are coming up short. I’m still struggling mightily with the broad-scale triumph of racism, greed and misogyny in this country. I’m not just struggling with the big names at the tops of the tickets–but with knowing that many people I know and love allowed and enabled this to happen. I am trying to sit with that, and I just really don’t know what to say.

Then there’s the violence… I see the images from Aleppo, and I can’t look away, but I also don’t have a single word of hope or peace to offer about that. Pray. Send money. Promote awareness. But speak? What can I possibly say? To know that, even as I wrap my kids’ presents and address cards to my loved ones and play some more Christmas music, children are dying… I have a hard time reckoning all that.

And much closer to home, I’ve been to the deep wilderness with some folks I love. In that place–in real time–is where I feel the silence most deeply, a physical heaviness. In ministry, you make that trek to the desert pretty often. But every now and then, it takes you to a place where your best words of comfort and holy presence sound empty. And so you just wait. And hold hands and share the tears, and try not to say anything too eff’n stupid.

 

Because that particular silence is a thin and sacred place, not to be broken by platitudes. It’s a place more raw and real than any shopping mall, performance venue, or festive gathering where we could otherwise be spending this season. That’s the place where Zechariah learned–like so many others, before and since–that silence is not a punishment, but an invitation. In his unbelief, that unlikely father was given a grace period… A breathing space to just be, to process and wait for the good news that he could not quite fathom. Sometimes, for whatever reason–be it grief or doubt or sheer disbelief–sometimes there are no words for the weight of the waiting.

If the music seems insipid to you this year; if the happy holiday cards seem grossly inauthentic; the sweetness of candy and cookies a bit cloying; and the noise and glitter and the consumer frenzy are just all a bit too much; then step into the blessed silence of this particular part of the story. Know that unlikely prophets and parents have gone here, before and since. Words will come when they’re ready, and belief in its own time. But for now, it is enough to just sit here and wait. Wait, trusting that we get our voices back when good news is born.

Christmas is far more likely to happen in the desert than on a sleigh ride. I know this to be true.

 

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