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Embracing the Silence of Christmas

Posted on Sunday, December 24, 2023
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by David P. Deavel
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AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel

Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus - Nativity Scene with stars

Christmas is a carnival of sound. The tinkling of bells and wine glasses, the basso profundo of the organ traveling beneath (and sometimes over) the choir, the carols belted by those who ought not be in the choir, the pop Christmas tunes of one’s youth now transformed into department store muzak, the ripping of wrapping paper, the cries of delight when the paper is off, the fights over presents, the shouts of agony and ecstasy during the annual Christmas board games. The mere hearing of them is enough to rouse in us “the hopes and fears of all the years” that were met in the little town of Bethlehem.

But if the hopes are to triumph over the fears, the reality of this holy day and its meaning must be experienced in silence. For Christmas is the celebration of the act of God whose deepest and most powerful actions are done in silence.

What, after all, is the feast of the birth of Christ? It is the celebration of the coming into the world of the Son of the Everlasting Father, the image of the invisible God, in order to heal a broken humanity so that it may again hear the divine voice, as our forebears in Eden did in the Garden, and eventually see him face to face.

But how did that coming into the world happen? Humans expect greatness to arrive in loud fashion—a brass band, fireworks, military flyovers. At the very least, the kind of loud theme music that serves as entry music for professional wrestlers. God’s ways are not our ways. “Silence,” says the Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, “is the law of the divine plans.” It is a silent night in which all God’s most beautiful and terrible judgments are laid bare.

The Book of Wisdom (accounted as part of the Old Testament by Catholics and Orthodox) includes in Chapter 18 a meditation on the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt. The night of Passover, in which the children of Israel were saved (and all the first-born Egyptians doomed), is described thus:

For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and night in its swift course was now half gone,
thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne….

The lovingkindness, mercy, and justice of God are all achieved by God’s word in silence. It is no surprise that these lines found a place in the old Latin Mass’s antiphons for the liturgy on the Octave of Christmas. Other hymns of Christmas—most notably “Silent Night”—focus on the silence of this descent of the Word Incarnate. This is fitting. Silence can be seen in the whole life of Jesus.    

For the celebration of the birth of the Word-made-flesh is a celebration of his whole life lived in obedience to his Father. The beginnings are most startling. After all, the Word becomes an infant—infans being the Latin word that means “not speaking.” And apart from some enigmatic lines at the age of twelve (significantly about his need to be “in my father’s house”), we hear nothing of the words of Jesus until the beginning of his ministry. The rest of it is shrouded in silence. Even as a man, “[t]he public life of the Lord,” the twentieth-century theologian Romano Guardini said, “lasted at the utmost a brief three years; some say scarcely two. But precisely for this reason how significant the preceding thirty years in which he did not teach, did not struggle, did not work miracles. There is almost nothing in Jesus’ life which attracts the reverent imagination more than the prodigious silence of these thirty years.”

And yet when that silence is broken, how it is broken! The resounding quality of Jesus’ words in the Gospels comes from the fact that they are neither mere chatter nor boasting nor even the conclusions of scholars. The crowds were astonished, Matthew tells us in chapter 7, “for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” Those words resound like thunder because they come from the never-ending silent dialogue he maintains with his Father in Heaven.

And yet, even throughout that two-to-three-year period, how often is his silence as profound and wonder-causing as his words? “There is then one Teacher, who spake and it was done,” the second-century martyr Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church in Magnesia, Greece, “while even those things which He did in silence are worthy of the Father.” To those about to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus sends forth peals of thunder that come down to us this day: “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.” And yet what makes this story told by John stick is the fact that he stops speaking, bends down, and writes with his finger on the ground as the accusers leave her.

So too as he moves on toward his death. Matthew’s Gospel records his laconic reply to Pontius Pilate’s question as to whether he is “the King of the Jews”: “You have said so.” But to Pilate’s question about the charges laid against him, as to the high priest’s questions about his kingship, “he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge.” Matthew records that at this silence, “the governor wondered greatly.” To this mysterious silence, this verbal nothing, the seventeenth-century poet Richard Crashaw attributes Christ’s whole redemptive power in his poem “And He Answered Them Nothing”:

O Mighty Nothing! unto thee,
Nothing, wee owe all things that bee.
God spake once when hee all things made,
Hee sav’d all when hee Nothing said.
The world was made of Nothing then;
‘Tis made by Nothing now againe.

“The whole life of Jesus,” writes Cardinal Sarah, “is wrapped in silence and mystery. If man wants to imitate Christ, it is enough for him to imitate his silences. The silence of the crib, the silence of Nazareth, the silence of the Cross, and the silence of the sealed tomb are one. The silences of Jesus are silences of poverty, humility, self-sacrifice, and abasement; it is the bottomless abyss of his kenosis, his self-emptying (Phil 2:7).” 

To embrace Christ and to embrace the joy of his Nativity, we too must empty ourselves to be filled, to be silent in order to hear the words of the Father who loves us enough to give his only begotten Son. Probably the oldest Christmas hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” says it best in the first stanza:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly minded,  for with blessing in His hand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.  

It’s not just a matter of external noise, as the prohibition on earthly-minded pondering indicates. Internal noise, particularly those shouting thoughts of anger, pride, and bitterness, is what so often clogs our souls. The sixteenth-century Spanish friar St. John of the Cross wrote in his Maxims on Love: “The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.”

To truly hear the Word is essential to becoming like him, developing the humility that, paradoxically, only God can teach. Silence allows room for the other to speak and “to have his place,” Cardinal Sarah says. This is the training ground and the preparation for much greater sacrifices, for “the problem of silence is the problem of love,” which “is not expressed in words.” Love’s strength “is such that it leads us to give ourselves even unto death, unto the humble, silent, and pure gift of our life.”

As we take in the carnival of sounds this Christmas, let us embrace the silence too. For as we silently ponder the mystery of the one who came to live and die for us, he will instill in us his own love that ever goes out of itself and gives its life for another. In giving us that love, we will see how both our hopes and our fears are met, for hope does not disappoint and perfect love casts out fear. 

David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Follow him on X @davidpdeavel. 

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Rob citizenship
Rob citizenship
5 months ago

Very important writing Mr. Deavel , the matter of silence, it has much to do with developing intelligent planning, clear communication , it provides a better atmosphere for getting things done properly . Distractions are not needed — silence can send an important message too. It is an indicator of strength , an indicator that thoughts are underway and it helps in understanding views and opinions better . It could be said that it provides more space to think , more room to move thoughts around in. It is very good that you wrote this article David , it should be appreciated by those who understand that quality of thinking is something to approach in a variety of ways — and it is sometimes a valuable quality to listen carefully before speaking . Silence can be a good use of time for remembering things that will help to deal with situations in the present.

Rik
Rik
5 months ago

STUPIDITY ON DISPLAY AGAIN!

Rik
Rik
5 months ago

Christmas like every other holiday in America has been turned into just another Retail Sales time! Churches are full of old people as most of the young people seem to deny the existence of God in their personal lives! They will certainly be surprised when they actually “meet” their maker!

Linda ????????
Linda ????????
6 months ago

Very good and very interesting article thanks for sharing ???? So we should say HAPPY birthday JESUS and PRAISE Be for God

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