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The Silence of the Lamb Print E-mail
By Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky   
Sunday, 16 February 2014

After the murder of John the Baptist by Herod, Christ begins His public ministry where John left off. Christ echoes everything John said (at least as recorded by the evangelists) except John’s condemnation of Herod’s illicit marriage. Christ certainly doesn’t lack the nerve; He wouldn’t discount the evil. His presumed silence cannot be an act of practical politics of the compromising kind. 

So why the silence?

Christ continues, in line with John, his invective against the Scribes and Pharisees. Like John, he refers to them as a “brood of vipers” in an attempt to bring about their conversion or at least to mitigate the scandal they presented to the more simple and devout Jews. The skittish Pharisee Nicodemus, for one, might not have become a disciple had not Christ (and John before Him) harshly accused the Pharisees of hypocrisy. There seems to be continued hope for their conversion, however remote.

The presumed public silence of Christ with respect to Herod – except for referring to him as “that fox” – continues throughout His ministry. Christ even remained silent before Herod during the trial that preceded His Passion. The silence couldn’t have been “passive-aggressive” or any other sort of psychological manipulation. It had to have a profound – and dreadful – purpose.

It is interesting to note by contrast that Christ, while apparently never entering into a dialog with Herod, entered into a conversation with Pilate. During the trial of Christ, that fascinating exchange may have been based on the expectation that Pilate truly sought the truth, a truth that would lead to his conversion. But the discourse comes to an abrupt end when Pilate responds to Christ – apparently with obdurate skepticism – “What  is truth?” 

We read in the Old Testament (cf. Ezekiel 3:26) that, because of the hardness of the hearts of the people of Israel, prophets were unable to preach. Their tongues cleaved to their mouths. Does the silence of Christ reveal a similar and more terrible judgment?

By murdering John, did Herod definitively disclose his true character, and did he reveal he would never repent despite an overabundance of the actual grace he was offered through the ministry of John? Did Herod perhaps commit the mysterious “sin against the Holy Spirit”? 

Does the silence that follows Pilate’s cynical refusal to seek the truth even as he gazed upon and conversed with the Way, the Truth and the Life bring with it a comparable divine judgment? It is not for us to judge; but we are free to wonder. 

          Woe Unto You, Scribes and Pharisees by James Tissot, c. 1890

Saint Thomas More chose to be silent in the face of Henry VIII’s adultery. Like Christ, his silence was not based on cowardice. But unlike Christ, Who freely gave Himself up to death, Thomas More attempted to avoid execution in obedience to Christ’s command that he be “clever as a serpent and innocent as a dove.” 

As everyone including Henry himself knew at the time, however, even More’s silence was a stinging indictment of the king. (There is truth in Cromwell’s remark: “nay, this silence was, not silence at all, but most eloquent denial!”)  

That More met the same fate as Bishop John Fisher, who actively and courageously opposed Henry, does not detract from the harsh effect of More’s tactic of silence.

Pope Pius XII went silent, after his 1941 Christmas message, in the face of the Nazis in World War II in order to prevent an even greater slaughter. The comparison with Christ cannot be one-to-one, of course, because Pius was not in any way the “master of the moment,” as Christ always is.

And we must allow for errors of judgment (although Pius worked diligently behind the scenes to save Jews, in evidence that remains in the Jewish graffiti still observable in their hideout at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence). Allowing for a wobbly correlation, even the silence of Pius can be understood as a kind of judgment of the Nazis: they refused to be persuaded by even the prophetic witness of the Vicar of Christ. The fact that Pius never met with Hitler reinforces silence as a powerful means of judgment.

All of this is conjecture, avoiding judgments that belong to God alone. But we are free to pose the question: Would it be better, in God’s providence, for our sins to be revealed for purposes of our repentance than for us to finish our lives without a whisper of Divine indictment because God knows the extent – and ultimate hopelessness – of our hardness of heart? 

The ever so wearisome flouting of Catholic teaching by pro-abortion (or to be redundant, “pro-choice”) Catholic politicians quickly comes to mind. And this leads one to wonder whether – again, from the mysterious point of view of providence – whether  pro-abortion advocacy and practices are so evil that proponents have become the new Herods of the culture, willfully impervious to grace.

We shouldn’t press the point too far, since God’s ways are not our ways. And there remain stunning if rare examples of true repentance. (Abortionist Bernard Nathanson’s conversion, for instance.) 

Still, in the grand providential scheme of things, silence can be a dreadful judgment of sinners, even if the official silence is the result of sinful negligence. Ecclesiastical discipline or the noisy excommunication of an unrepentant sinner is better – as a sign of hope to the sinner – than the harsh judgment of silence. 

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing is priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of Saint Michael the Archangel Church in Annandale, Virginia.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by J. Smith, February 16, 2014
The silence is deafening.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 16, 2014
St Augustine says, “who would dare to affirm that God has no method of calling whereby even Esau might have applied his mind and yoked his will to the faith in which Jacob was justified? But if the obstinacy of the will can be such that the mind’s aversion from all modes of calling becomes hardened, the question is whether that very hardening does not come from some divine penalty, as if God abandons a man by not calling him in the way in which he might be moved to faith. Who would dare to affirm that the Omnipotent lacked a method of persuading even Esau to believe?”

So scripture says, “I will have mercy on whom I will, and I will be merciful to whom it shall please Me” (Exod. 33:19) and “He hath blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.” (Isa. 6. 10; John 12. 37 ff)
written by Mack Hall, February 16, 2014
One doubts that Pius, that wise and saintly man, made any mistake at all. The mistakes are only in our lack of knowledge and in our failure to understand.
written by Ramon Sanchez , February 16, 2014
Although very welcome the thoughts expressed we must be careful in taking for granted Jesus silence in the Gospels as a reference of Jesus silence. It is very different to put in writing and circulate those writings avoiding the destruction of the documents and further persecution than to leave certain aspects to memory.
Even though this is more speculation I think that the supposed silence is a matter for reflection.
written by debby, February 16, 2014
To the Bishops:
Respectfully, WE CAN'T HEAR YOU.

The Faithful are often left to follow the Holy Spirit as best we can discern.

As a former Protestant, I am beginning to see on a much deeper level in my own life-time the daunting dilemma that those who love Him and long to serve Him with abandon have too-often in history faced: how do we faithfully follow when the leaders are not leading?
Dear Bishops, your people dwell in angst.
The small persons in public office who consider themselves Mighty are in fact no "Pilate", therefore none have any reason to consider Christ's silence to be the cue to "say nothing". Maybe the day we are asked to die for the Faith we will be directed in that manner......
We are praying for you.
We ask you to LEAD.

p.s. I wonder if Christ's haunting question keeps any one up at night. "And when the Son of Man returns to the earth, will He find Faith?"
written by bill bannon, February 16, 2014
The rules of fraternal correction alone (see new advent's encyclopedia) were against Christ rebuking a ruler who killed after that already tried identical rebuke. Rebuke must see possibility of change in a person (excepting leaders to their followers). John had some unknown to us reason to believe that Herod might grow from his rebuke. Christ did not have such hopeful reason once John's hope proved incorrect.
Christ could have denounced infanticide in the Roman empire but Christ did not because prudentially, Christ needed to reach and preach to Jerusalem finally and getting arrested for anti Roman rebukes would hinder that. I'd urge the author to really discern the spirits on this topic because unlike Christ, we have no clue if abortion advocates are beyond rebuke and therefore beyond prayer by us. We are not God who alone knows who is hopeless. Pius XII was not God. His silence at times was prudent not judging of final damnation in Nazis... because according to Rabbi Dalin, more Jews were killed in areas where Bishops were more vocal against the nazis. Imprudent rebuke produces evil's growth. There are probably many letter writers rebuking both Pilosi and Biden so the silence may only be at the mega level and not the micro level. St. Catherine of Siena was a lay person who rebuked Popes by letter. She was micro in her day. We, not being God, are to presume that no one is currently in the sin against the Holy Spirit. No sane person prays in words to the effect..."Lord have mercy on all men except the ones in the sin against the Holy Spirit" because they will not be forgiven here or after death".
written by bill bannon, February 16, 2014
Christ would sin by rebuking a person who already rejected rebuke by murdering the first rebuker. You are only to rebuke if there is reason to hope that it will cause change. " Do not cast your pearls before swine."
John the Baptist saw reason to hope that Herod would change. Christ seeing that whole scenario play out...had no reason to think Herod would then listen to Him. Noisy yelling families are those in which people rebuke each other even though there is now no hope the other person will change.
Rebuke is not a thrill sport. It must proceed from love.
written by Deacon James Stagg, February 16, 2014
It would be interesting, in a future column, for Father Pokorsky to comment on the scandal which happened near his location, in which an averred lesbian was refused Holy Communion.
written by Seanachie, February 16, 2014
Seems to me that silence may also be interpreted as tacit consent/approval...effective leaders are both seen and heard.
written by Mack, February 16, 2014
Dear Debby,

So many of the bishops are too busy yukking it up with the powers at the Al Smith Dinner and local variants to teach, preach, and offer the Sacraments.

But not all, and even with the most narcissistic there is always hope.

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