The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear,” says Isaiah in one of Holy Week’s most well-known passages (Isa. 50:5). His prophetic words were the result of God waking him up to open his ear “morning by morning” (50:4). False prophets speak their own words because they have closed ears. Isaiah’s open ears were the number-one requirement for his prophetic task. First comes silent listening; then follows faithful speech. That is why Isaiah reports that God would wake him up each morning—indeed, would wake up his ear—so he could hear as those who are taught (50:4).
We often do the opposite of listening. Our tongues just rattle on, never mind what others say to us. The reason is simple: We think too highly of ourselves, we prefer teaching over learning, we are proud. Holy Week confronts us with our pride.
Listening in silence is the gospel’s core demand. This is nothing sweet and nothing gentle. Silent listening is for slaves. When a Hebrew slave committed himself for lifetime service to his master, the two performed a gruesome ritual: The master would bring his slave to the door, take a sharp awl, put the slave’s ear to the doorpost, and pierce it through (Exod. 21:5–6). I suppose the ritual said two things: (1) you will always belong to this house and (2) your ear will always be open to what I say—you will listen while I do the talking.
Isaiah is a slave of God. He is silent and listens to his master. Silence is a horribly difficult thing. In Holy Week, we are confronted with just how trying it is. Jesus is silent. “Answerest thou nothing?” asks the high priest, Caiaphas (Mark 14:60). “Answerest thou nothing?” asks Pilate the governor shortly thereafter (15:4). But Jesus is silent; he answers not a word.
Jesus is silent because he listens. It is as if his ear is pierced to the page of the prophet’s word: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isa. 50:6). Yes, this is a quotation from Isaiah. But it is not just Isaiah speaking; it is Jesus speaking—in and through Isaiah. That, at least, is the claim of the Gospel writer: “Some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, Prophesy: and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands” (Mark 14:65). Jesus is silent like Isaiah, for he suffers the beating and the spitting of Isaiah's prophecy.
Jesus is a slave. Theologians often put it nicely; they speak about Jesus as the “suffering servant” and about our Isaiah passage as a “suffering servant song.” But refined language cannot conceal the horror of slavery. It is not just that the beating is awful, not just that the spitting is vile. With the physical abuse comes something else: The Word of God is silenced on the cross. A more profound humiliation is unthinkable. Holy Week is the silencing of God’s eternal Word.
The soldiers mock the glory of the King: They clothe him with purple; they plait a crown of thorns for his head; they salute him; they strike him with a reed; they spit on him; and yes, they kneel down and worship him (Mark 15:17–19). The Lord God is mocked like a slave.
Perhaps his silence before Caiaphas and Pilate should not surprise us. The Word is the one who woke up the prophet each morning. He is the one who spoke into Isaiah’s ear about shame and spitting. He is the one who prophesied his own slavery, suffering, and silence. Perhaps the Word is silent during Holy Week because he is carefully listening to the speech he himself once whispered into the prophet’s ear.
Mark’s passion narrative is filled with noisy blabbermouths: false witnesses offering testimony, Caiaphas feigning outrage, Peter offering vehement denials, Pilate equivocating, crowds clamoring for execution, soldiers mocking and reviling. They are all deceived by self-importance, for they all suffer from logorrhea and talk nonstop.
But besides Jesus, one other person never says a word. One other person labors like a slave. One other person suffers being dragged through the mud. His name is Simon: “They compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross” (15:21).
Maximus the Confessor, the great Eastern theologian, reminds us that the name Simon means “listening” or “obeying.” It is true, the Gospel tells us they “compel” Simon to bear the cross. But Maximus rightly suspects that, like his Lord, Simon bore the cross of his own free will. Why otherwise would Saint Mark—who describes only the barest details of the scene—tell us the crossbearer’s name? The reason is simple: We are called to be Simon, called to willing obedience. The Lord God wants to change us from talkers into listeners, transfigure us from snobs to slaves.
Our aim in life, beloved, is very simple: to become Simon of Cyrene. “Anyone who is ready for obedience to the Gospel,” Saint Maximus tells us, “has become Simon of Cyrene” (Ambiguum 52).
True, the gospel is about more than just slavery, suffering, and silence. These are not ends in themselves. We accept slavery with an eye to freedom. We bear suffering in the hope of eternal happiness. We endure silence so we may hear the eternally spoken Word.
But Easter is preceded by Holy Week. We are lifted up into the glory of God’s Word only by first being humbled into the shame of God’s own silence. This is the aim of our ascetic discipline in Holy Week—to be transfigured into slaves, our ears pierced to the door; to be transfigured into Simon, bearing the cross upon our shoulders; to be transfigured into Isaiah, the prophetic suffering servant; and, most of all, to be transfigured into Jesus the Word, silenced in and with him to an ignominious death.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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Image by Museo Nacional del Prado on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image triplicated and cropped.