The Silence of God

By Tim Winterstein

Today is a day for the silence of God. Through all the false accusations, the trials, the beating, the mocking, the crucifying: silence and abandonment. Jesus, the Son, cries out, asking why God, His Father, has forsaken Him, and there is no answer. For everyone who has prayed and heard no answer; for everyone who believes the silence of God signals His absence or non-existence; for everyone who has felt abandoned by a God they thought they knew—today is the day.

In 1963, Ingmar Bergman made Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna [streaming on the Criterion Channel, or for rent or purchase on YouTube]), confronting the existential crisis of a silent God. The opening scene is the Lutheran priest, Tomas Ericsson, speaking the Words of Institution. He seems to be reciting by rote, but you don’t know at first whether it’s because he’s distracted or because he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. Slowly, his crisis unfolds in the mirrors of both his illicit lover, Märta, and Jonas Persson, who cannot escape his fear of a Chinese atomic bomb.

First Reformed has been called an “unofficial remake” of Winter Light. The main characters, though shuffled and given increased or decreased time, are the same.Schrader’s Esther is Märta, and Mary is Karin Persson. But it wasJonas Persson (Max von Sydow)—Paul Schrader’s Michael—who first alerted me to the similarities in the films. In Winter Light, Pastor Ericsson uses Jonas selfishly as a means to unload his own spiritual poverty, whereas Michael becomes Toller’s catalyst for action. But both men commit suicide after speaking with the pastors (who have both lost loved ones), even using the same method. And a tense stasis is broken, unraveling destructively (though Toller’s unraveling is, by far, the more spectacular).

But what brought Winter Light to my attention wasn’t its similarities with First Reformed, but because it was named as an analogue to the book Holy Masquerade (which I mentioned here) by Brita and Krister Stendahl in a blurb for that book. Whatever their similarities, both Holy Masquerade and Winter Light feel more true to me than First Reformed. Obviously, I’m among the few convinced of this, but Toller’s spiritual/existential crisis seems contrived. His instability shifts focus too suddenly, and without apparent precedent, comes to revolve around the environmental concern of a suicidal husband. (Though even Variety‘s review has trouble with the radicalizing theme.)

In Winter Light, however, Jonas’ suicide furthers and heightens Tomas’ own trajectory. No doubt, Jonas’ fear in 1963 was probably just as timely as Michael’s fear in 2018. It’s not the particular focus of the fear that seems unreal, but how Toller takes that fear for himself after a single conversation. It’s almost as if his crisis is aimless, and Michael gives it an object. Tomas, though, already has an object of his discontent, so he doesn’t throw himself into protesting the world arms race or the Cold War. Instead, everyone else, in various ways, feeds—rather than reorients—his discontent.

Where First Reformed feels as subtle as a sledgehammer, Winter Light is like a slow, but relentless, chisel. And its ambiguous ending (First Reformed has its own version of this ambiguous ending) leaves open the question about whether Pastor Ericsson will recover anything resembling faith. Both Toller and Ericsson struggle with the silence of God, but while Toller thinks he can hear God telling him to do something about a climate crisis, Ericsson has nothing but the words of the Sanctus, spoken to a nearly empty church. The final words of the film are “The whole earth is full of Thy glory.”

That’s the ultimate tension: the whole earth is full of the glory of God, yet we do not find it or see it or experience it, at least not in ways that are indisputable. Whether either Toller or Ericsson actually believe in a God who has made Himself known—or can make Himself known—the fundamental difference is that Ericsson has something binding him to the Word of God that Toller does not seem to have. Toller can only go blindly in the dark night of his soul, feeling and groping toward a God who may or may not be there.

Maybe it’s the difference between a Calvinist and a Lutheran background, but unlike Schrader’s Toller, Bergman’s Ericsson—even if he doesn’t believe it—is standing on firm and holy ground. Apparently, it was Winter Light that caused Bergman to acknowledge that he himself no longer believed. Raised by a strict priest of the Church of Sweden, who punished his son harshly if he deviated slightly, Bergman seems to be combining in the character of Tomas Ericsson his own doubts and the person—or office—of his father.

Religious hypocrisy is an easy target, in part, because Christians actually claim to believe certain things and a certain Person. If a mechanic neglects his wife’s car, it would merit only a wry smile, not closed-fist denunciations of hypocrisy. But hypocrisy doesn’t take center stage here, as it does in The Other Side of Sunday, or even in Holy Masquerade. I feel more deeply the strain that Ericsson feels in the forced nature of his vocation versus his personal belief. However, it’s not in the matter of God’s existence. I find that very difficult to doubt, as an unassailable fact.

But in the face of the silence of God, when the ground itself is shifting and rearranging, it is precisely the words and actions of the ritual that put me back on the rock, who is Christ. As the Abbess says in In This House of Brede, “That is the blessing of the liturgy, it wipes out self.” When people cannot hear the voice of God, turn inward, and search in themselves or in some kind of activism for the missing Presence, how often do they turn toward the places and words by which Christ has promised to be their present God? Ironically, those who seem to search the hardest for evidence of God’s presence have, almost as a presupposition, disregarded exactly those words and means that God Himself has given by which He will be present among us.

Today, in the history of the world, God is silent—though the crucifixion of the Word-made-flesh speaks Love. And tomorrow Jesus rests in the silence of the garden tomb. Here are moments to meditate on what that silence means. (Winter Light, in fact, takes place between 12 and 3 pm.) There is a connection of suffering with suffering, but also a connection between the gray, Swedish silence that Ericsson experiences and the dark, Jerusalem silence. If God remains eternally silent in the face of Jesus’ suffering, then we could well rage against that silence. But the God who was silent while Jesus hung on the cross also raised Him from the dead.

And it is that God who gives the gifts of that resurrected Jesus, who speaks that resurrected Word, who heals with that resurrection healing. The Swedish title of Winter Light means “the communicants.” It begins, in fact, with the small congregation communing. Bergman’s biographer, Peter Cowie, points out (in an interview on the Criterion Channel) that the title also references communicating, in our sense of that word. The people barely communicate with each other, and God seems to communicate not at all.

But that is exactly what He does in the Communion, the Body given and the Blood shed, eaten and drunk. His glory fills the whole earth, but it is a crucified glory for as long as this creation persists. And that is not the glory that is apparent to us or to our senses. We hear only human words. We touch only regular water. We eat only bread and drink only wine. But the whole earth is full of His glory, and that glory that infuses everything is received by faith where and when God wills it.

Today, tonight, God is silent in the face of the ways we would like Him to speak. But today, tomorrow, the first day of the week, and beyond, His voice is deafening for those who have ears to hear.