God’s Friday: Music & Silence
We’ve just heard the Passion narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. And it is so hard to listen to this story of betrayal, sorrow, pain, and death. Generally speaking, death is hard for us. Even when we know it is coming (and in this case we’ve had forty days of Lent to prepare), we don’t know how to handle it. What to do, what to say. And in such cases, we often say nothing. We are silent.
Silence can be an awkward, in-between place for us. We tend to fill silence in our lives with the background noise from televisions, radios, ipods, computers. We jump ahead to fill silence in conversations. Even here in worship, we can be a little unsettled by silence.
I’ve been thinking about silence this week from a musician’s perspective. I think, in music, that silence is not so much the absence of sound as it is a critical part of our experience.
For example, consider what it is like to attend a concert. There is a cacophony of noise as instruments warm up–nothing scripted but it always sounds the same. Finally, everything becomes quiet, silent. The conductor comes on stage, steps up to the podium and everyone is waiting. For musicians and audience alike, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement. I think Christmas Eve is a bit like that. No matter how noisy and hectic the season, when you arrive here at church for the Christmas Eve service, you become silent and still, waiting for the coming miracle of the baby Jesus.
Silence before music is one thing. Silence within music is something else. Think about how crucial silence is within music. If everyone sang, everyone played their instrument all the time, how boring would that be? Instead, musicians share the gift of deliberately scheduled silence. Isn’t it ironic that silence in music is designated by symbols known as “rests”? I’ve accompanied students who will describe the difficulty of their music by the lack of rests. (“There’s no place for me to breathe in this piece.”) Some of us have spent this Lenten season looking for this very type of silence, a place to rest and a time to breathe. Too few rests (in music and in life) can be a problem.
But there’s another difficulty with silence in music for some musicians: too many rests! Think of the lone cymbal player who must sit attentively through measures and measures of “rest,” focused and counting, waiting for that moment when he or she is called to play that all-important part. Some of us have spent Lent here, too, waiting and watching for an important event in our own life or that of a loved one. It may look easy to others but such active waiting and watching is anything but “resting.”
Today, however, we have come to a very different type of silence. Not in anticipation, not in active waiting. We are finally still. We have made our Lenten journey. We have, once more, passed through the Stations of the Cross. We have, once more, been with those at the foot of the cross and seen Jesus carried to his tomb. And now for a brief time we are silent.
And that made me think of one more type of silence that I associate with music.
When a concert concludes, the audience may respond in one of several ways. Some times there is, of course, immediate and enthusiastic applause with perhaps a spontaneous standing ovation. On the other hand, if the concert has been more lengthy and less engaging, the audience may rouse themselves to applaud politely while secretly thankful to be finally released. (The performer has to move quickly to get back on stage for that second bow before the applause stops!)
But once in a while, if you are very fortunate you will be witness to a musical performance that was so moving, so emotionally profound, that when it is finished, the audience is momentarily silent. And as that silence stretches out, it speaks more loudly than the applause which ultimately does follow, ever could.
That is the silence we share here on Good Friday–God’s Friday, as it was once called.
We may ponder questions that this narrative raises for us:
How could Judas betray his Lord? Why did the shouts of “Hosanna” on Sunday turn so quickly to “Crucify him”? Which group bore the greater responsibility for Jesus’ death–the religious leaders or political overlords? What caused Pilate to wash his hands and allow the execution of someone he believed to be innocent?
But ultimately we are faced with the real question as we stand at the foot of the cross and wait by the tomb in the garden: what does Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross mean for me today? How am I to understand and respond to God’s love for me in Christ?
I think that here on Good Friday we are captured by silence, contemplating guilt and forgiveness, in awe and astonishment at what our Lord has done for us. We sit together in silence, waiting the coming of Easter morning and the joy of resurrection.
And we say in words from final verse of the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”:
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee
Changed from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.