|The Nativity (ca. 1665-70); Bartolomé Esteban Murillo|
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold!
Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven's all gracious King!
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
“Solemn stillness.” Silence and the birth of Christ just go together, and not only in Christmas carols. Why mid-winter? Why midnight? For the silence. We sing of it often, but how often do we get it? How often do we seek the silence, to obtain what we know accompanies the birth of Christ? Are these carols merely souvenirs of what was, are they signs of our yearning, or is there some help here for us who hope to greet the newborn King?
As long as I’ve been Pastor here, it has been my practice after everybody has left from the last Christmas Mass to sit silently in the church. It started simply enough; after the mayhem of six Christmas Masses and the joyful greetings at the door, I was completely spent, but too hopped up on adrenaline and grace to rest, much less sleep. Exhausted and grateful, I flopped down into a pew just so, fully vested, and simply enjoyed the presence of the Lord, rejoicing in the church so beautiful and somehow still filled with the echoes of the people who had worshipped there over the previous twenty madcap hours. Now I plan for this respite, and look forward to the time of joyful, grateful silence.
It is perhaps a luxury of my celibate state to have on Christmas day, with its many demands, that long period of silence to pray and praise God. Nonetheless, I think most people in some way associate this holy day and its joy with silence. Maybe it is the silence of sleeping children; maybe the frosty silence that winter brings to an evening. Maybe you get to enjoy some silence while making your preparations; wrapping, or baking, or decorating. And maybe, just maybe, you have a routine that brings you to silence in the presence of the living God; before your Advent confession perhaps, or when you make a nighttime visit to our outdoor crèche. It is then that we touch on the simple truth our days so rarely allow, that our God reveals Himself in silence.
Elijah learned it when he went up the Mount Horeb to encounter the Lord: And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-12) The “still small voice,” or, as it is otherwise rendered, the “tiny whispering sound,” is characteristic of our God. And to hear Him, we must be silent.
That night in the stable, the infant Christ lay in the manger, not entirely silent perhaps, but saying nothing; the Word became flesh and was wordless. But the love of God for His poor foolish people and His desire to be with us rings out like a shout, or more like a song. And looking into that tiny crib, we understand.
We make a lot of noise in church at Christmas, and I am among the chief culprits. We pray and sing our praises, and greet one another with true Christian love. It is good, very good, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But this year my wish for you, my invitation and exhortation, is that you seek the silence of Christmas, and not just sing about it.
Seek the silent intimacy of a snuggle with your little ones, while they are still disposed to let you. Take note of the unplanned and precious moments of silent intimacy that spouses share in which so much is mutual and understood. Rejoice in the wordlessness in which you express so much of who you truly are, for your family, for your friends and neighbors, and in your work. Survey the glory of creation in the silence of a winter’s dawn.
And seek the silent intimacy in which you come to know your God. Stop the recitation of tasks and worries, still the preoccupations and distractions. Turn off your phone; the Lord is calling you to be with Him. Hush now; be still. Behold, He comes. Christ is born for this: enjoy the presence of the Lord!
All is calm
All is bright
Round yon virgin Mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
May your Christmas this year be marked by silence; the silence in which God reveals His presence and His love. From Father Gallaugher and Father Grisafi, and from all the folks here at the rarely-silent rectory, peace to you! Blessed Christmas.