Before the party, silence.

Icon of the Holy Silence

A sermon preached for the Ordination to the Priesthood of Seth Walley, St. Peter’s Church, Oxford, MS, January 22, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 43, Philippians 4:4-9, and John 6:35-38.

I think we’re almost ready. We’re almost ready for a party of biblical proportion. The flowers are done. The music is practiced. There’s a bishop, family and friends. We’ve gotten cleaned up and dressed. We are ready for a party.

The scriptures do their part to “pump up the volume.” Isaiah brings in the seraphim whooshing and whirring about, wings fluttering and flying. They’ve got their own soundtrack, too, singing “Holy, holy, holy.” Their music rocks the house, and then comes the smoke– holy smoke that makes for holy sending forth.

Saint Paul lends his voice (as if there were ever a party he didn’t crash or comment on). And Paul’s word is a simple one: Rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord always. And again, Rejoice! Know God’s peace. Know God’s truth. Know God’s excellence. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice.

And as if all of that weren’t enough—what, with the music and the wings and the smoke, there’s food. The Gospel brings food a-plenty. “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus. Whoever, wherever, however you come to me, you’ll find enough. You’ll eat and drink and be full. And you’ll be filled with so MUCH good stuff that you just can’t help but share and feed others.

Yes, we’re almost ready for a party. We’re ready for Seth to be ontologically changed. We’re ready to reaffirm our faith and assent to our own sending. We’re ready to rejoice– but before we go on, before we go too far, we need to make sure we’ve extended one important invitation. We need to make sure we invite the Holy Spirit.

Of course, in some ways, that invitation is a standing one. The Spirit is already here, has been here, and will be here forever after. It’s not something we do or bring, but there is a special sense in which we still invite—not so much to summon the Spirit as to notice the Spirit’s presence: here, around us, within us.

In just a bit, we will sing old, old words, “Come, Holy Spirit.” “Come, Holy Ghost.” “Inspire. Anoint. Impart. Enable. Protect. Comfort. Fire up! Teach. Give peace.” All these things are prayers, but they’re also descriptions of what the Holy Spirit does, and will always do.

And then, after we sing this hymn, before our spoken prayers continue, there comes a moment– a crucial, beautiful, powerful, frightening moment. In that moment we stop.

We do what Christians have done since at least the early Third Century. We keep silence and we pray for the Holy Spirit. Hippolytus, the Bishop of Rome, described it in the year 215: “Everyone will keep silent,” he wrote, “praying in their hearts for the descent of the Spirit.” [The Apostolic Tradition, c. 215].

And so we keep silence. We stop, and wait, and be still. It is a still point.

It’s the kind of still point T.S. Eliot reflects upon in Burnt Norton. [T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” II.] He writes,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

It’s not a party until there’s dancing. But with God there’s always dancing. “Perichoresis” is the fancy Greek term for God’s inwelling, interpenetration, God’s movement in-and-around, God’s holy dance that sweeps us off our feet and into the eternal dance of God’s love. But the dance begins at the still point. The love of God begins and rekindles at a still point.

In the silent moment of this service, we recognize that even though we have just about everything we need here today—we need more. We need more than the Church. We need more than the Scriptures. We need more than ourselves. We need more than we can produce. We need more than we can attain. We need the Holy Spirit.

I love that our Ordinal preserves this holy moment of silence. I love it for Seth’s sake, because there are going to be days for him when he will need that to remember that moment, that pause, again and again. No matter how many books, how many conversations, or how many prayers, he will come those places where all that he brings (and it’s a lot) is just not enough. And so, he’ll need to stop. And pray. And listen. And invite the Holy Spirit.

I love this moment of silence for our sake, too. Because in our work there are, and will continue to be times when we don’t know what to do, or we’ve done all we can do, but we’re stuck. In our daily lives, there are those places where we get stuck: Our child is moving and growing in directions we are not prepared for. Older family are aging and becoming people we don’t recognize and yet we love them, and we’re responsible for them, and we don’t know what to do. Or the job ends. Or, the money runs out. Or, the love disappears. On and on, our list might go—the list of things bring us to the still point in our families, our relationships, our own hopes and dreams and plans, were we have done all we can. But we’re stuck, and we’re brought to our knees, and we need help.

The life Christ shows us that there is one more thing we can do. We can stop. We can ask for help. We can pray, “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.” We can pray, “Come ON, Holy Spirit.” We can pray “Come, Lord Jesus.” We can pray simply, “Come.” Or more realistically, we might just pray “Jesus,” as half-curse, and half-prayer. Or maybe we just let the silence pray. But our words don’t matter. It’s the silence that counts.

And God hears. And God moves. And God will show up in surprising and startling and humbling and helping ways. But show up, God does. And then the party (or the occasion, or the task, or the LIFE) really begins.

Seth, don’t forget to stop and ask for help—from God, from Our Lady, from your colleagues, friends, parishioners, and family. And from the Holy Spirit, who works through them all.

And may we, all of us, remember the gift of silence that offers rest, that invites the Holy Spirit, and that prepares us for eternal life with Christ and Creator.  Before the party, during the party, and after the party: let there be silence.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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