Deafening Silence of the Word: The 40 Hours to Easter - St. Bernard's

Deafening Silence of the Word: The 40 Hours Before the Resurrection

Mar 26, 2024

Matthew Kuhner, Ph.D.

During Advent and Lent, it is quite common for Catholic parishes to offer “40 Hours Devotion.” These remarkable events are typically held over the course of three days featuring Masses, the sacrament of penance, Eucharistic adoration, and perhaps meditative reflections. In preparation to participate in a 40 Hours Devotion, I was stunned to discover that ‘40 hours’ is not primarily a reference to the importance of the number 40 across Sacred Scripture (think of the rains of the great flood lasting for 40 days and 40 nights [Gen. 7:4], the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years [Josh. 4:6], and Jesus fasting and praying for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert [Mt. 4:2]). Incredibly, the ‘40 Hours’ is first and foremost intended to mark the 40 hours spanning from Jesus’ entombment on Good Friday to the moment of His resurrection on Sunday morning.

What a remarkable devotion! What a mysterious moment within the history of salvation! Here we are called to enter into the great silence of Christ’s tomb and the overwhelming, triumphal silence of His descent to Hell, to the prison of the dead.

Perhaps the text that helps us most deeply enter into this period between Jesus’ death and resurrection is the venerable “ancient homily for Holy Saturday” included in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours. It opens with these unforgettable words:

“What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled. Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam's son.”

After grasping Adam’s hand, he offers the following words (among others!):

“‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person… The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.’”

This great silence, the great stillness of God sleeping in the flesh, is recapitulated in the quietude of our churches during the 40 Hours Devotion. But as the homily reveals, this is a silence that erupts not because of Jesus’ absence during this period, but rather because of His profound presencethe Word of God falls into the earth silently not as an absence of communication, but as an overwhelming density of communication!

The great silence is the silence of the great deed of redemption. The stillness is the noiselessness of Christ’s intrepid search for the furthest lost sheep, the very first sinner of the human race. Truly, in His sealed tomb Jesus has left the 99 to seek the Lost One, the very progenitor of our humanity and our original sin (see Lk. 15:3-7). In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius of Antioch signals all of this beautifully: “there is then one Teacher, who spoke and it was done; while even those things which He did in silence are worthy of the Father. He who possesses the word of Jesus, is truly able to hear even His very silence…” (15).

Suddenly, in the silence of Hell, the Word appears: Jesus’ deed of love speaks forth in the very silence of death’s grip, and it will not be shouted down. In this lightless space, in the place where there is no sound, no voice, no word, in the very kingdom of death, the Word shouts His deed of love into that final silence, ensuring that there is no longer any place that does not know the full glory of this Word. The homily transposes Christ’s silent deed into speech, revealing the true depth of redemption: the Word of God enters into the soundless bounds of Hell, exclaiming as he takes Adam by the hand: ‘Awake!’ ‘Arise!’ ‘Let us go!’

As we sit in Eucharistic Adoration during the 40 Hours Devotion, we too are approached by Christ Who has descended into our own sealed hearts, into the depths of our being where we both love and fail to love, and He says directly to us: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light;” “I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell,” the Hell of our sin, of our life without Him; “Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead;” “Arise, let us go hence… I will reinstate you no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven.”

As St. Ignatius suggests, this is the true mark of the Christian: the Christian is the one who, possessing the word of Jesus, “is able to hear even His very silence.” In prayer, we are able to hear the deafening, shattering silence of the Word’s search for us in all of Its overwhelming presence; we literally experience Christ’s search for us, His beloved sheep – just as we also literally experience Christ’s search for every person, His love for everyone that drove Him down from heaven to become incarnate in history, that drove Him down to the depths of hell to bring back the first of the human race, and that drives Him forward to send His Spirit of truth and mercy upon every generation until the end of time through His Church.

Perhaps this explains why the 40 Hours Devotion is most often understood as a time to pray for forgiveness and in reparation for our sins and for the those of the whole world. By entering into this moment of the silent Word, we pray that we may be liberated from everything that would prevent us from responding to Christ’s call to awake and to arise; we pray fervently that all may come to know the incredible love of the Lord, Who in those 40 hours professes His undying love through a communication so stunning and so overwhelming that it speaks more through action than through speech. Jesus’ love for us is so extreme, so faithful, so unbreakable, that not even death could mute it! His act of loving us to the end (Jn. 13:1), laying down His life for his friends (Jn. 15:13), renders Him no slave to death: it is rather He who now holds the keys to death and Hades (Rev. 1:18), the One whose deafening presence now occupies even the greatest mortal silence.

During this Holy Week and the impending Triduum, may we be drawn in hope by the inestimable love of our God, whose love for us always precedes us (1 Jn. 4:19). Truly, silence can no longer quench the Word of God, the word of love, in the darkness of death; there is only the fullness of the Word’s presence, communicated in speech or in deed. Jesus Christ has proved beyond measure the truth of St. Paul’s words: “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:37-39).

Dr. Matthew Kuhner is Vice President / Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, NY. Dr. Kuhner earned his Masters in Theological Studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, DC and completed his Ph.D. in systematic theology at Ave Maria University in southwest Florida. Dr. Kuhner’s academic work has appeared in Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Theological Studies, Lux Veritatis: A Journal of Speculative Theology, Angelicum, the Journal of Moral Theology, Pro Ecclesia, Nova et Vetera, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, and the Journal of Jesuit Studies. He serves on the Editorial Board of Communio: International Catholic Review. His areas of teaching and research interest reflect the integrated convergence of dogmatic and historical theology, with a special emphasis in 20th century Catholic thought and the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Dr. Kuhner deeply loves teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and his favorite classes are Mary, Mother of God and Faith, Fiction, and Film: The Drama of Belief. Dr. Kuhner is married to his college sweetheart, Michelle, and they have the joy of sharing their lives with their daughter, Catherine Grace, and sons, John Benedict and Aidan Dominic.