Reverent Silence

“Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep.”

So wrote an anonymous priest in the early centuries of the Church. “Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep.” He wrote this for a sermon preached on Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus lay dead in the tomb, but it may be said equally appropriately of our Lord’s birth in the flesh.

The great central mystery of our faith, the Incarnation of the Word, can perhaps best be approached, best contemplated, not in many words, but in an image, the image of the babe lying in the manger. The King is asleep. And we gaze with reverent silence.

So many of the mysteries of our faith are fittingly accompanied by silence. For nine months the Lord rested silently in the womb of his Virgin Mother. On that first Christmas he lies silent in the straw – the King, who has come to save us, is resting. In thirty-three years there will again be much silence: silence before the council, before Pilate and Caiaphas and Herod; an anguished cry from the cross, receding into silence; the dead Christ, silent in the tomb.

From the womb to the tomb, there is much reverent silence. And this silence is the most suitable response to what has come to pass: The Word has become flesh, that he might dwell among us. Commenting on this sentence of St. John’s Gospel, Blessed John Henry Newman said:

Thus does the favoured Apostle and Evangelist [St. John] announce to us that Sacred Mystery, which we this day especially commemorate, the incarnation of the Eternal Word. Thus briefly and simply does he speak as if fearing he should fail in fitting reverence. If any there was who might seem to have permission to indulge in words on this subject, it was the beloved disciple, who had heard and seen, and looked upon, and handled the Word of Life; yet, in proportion to the height of his privilege, was his discernment of the infinite distance between him and his Creator. Such too was the temper of the Holy Angels, when the Father ‘brought in the First-begotten into the world’: they straightway worshipped Him. And such was the feelings of awe and love mingled together, which remained for a while in the church after Angels had announced his coming, and Evangelsists had recorded His sojourn here, and His departure; ‘there was silence as it were for half an hour.’ Around the Church, indeed, the voices of blasphemy were heard, even as when he hung on the cross; but in the Church there was light and peace, fear, joy, and holy meditation. Lawless doubtings, importunate inquirings, confident reasonsings were not. [A] heartfelt adoration, a practical devotion to the Ever-blessed Son, precluded difficulties in faith, and sheltered the Church from the necessity of speaking.

This certainly is a part of the Christmas message, this injunction to reverent silence, it is in a sense our newborn King’s first mandate. Asleep on the hay, it is the incarnate Word’s first word, calling us to adore him. Venite adoremus, O come let us adore. St. Luke says: 

The shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2.15ff)

Coming with the shepherds to this mystical crèche, joining Mary and Joseph in holy meditation, and seeing this child in the straw – what do we see? St. Maximus the Confessor said that we see the holy child playing at the boundary of earth and heaven, of infinity and finitude. Standing at the crèche, seeing “this thing that has happened”, we see God’s victory, and our salvation, what the devil and the rulers of this world’s present darkness could never have expected – the infinite having become a finite fact – the foolishness and weakness of the eternal God, dwelling beyond the limit of grammar but having become intelligible; dwelling beyond the building blocks of logic, language, and math, but now having become a discreet reality, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

In his great poem Ash Wednesday, T.S. Eliot wrote:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
the world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

And the speaker in the poem asks, “Where shall the word be found, where will the word Resound?” And he concludes: “Not here, there is not enough silence…” and adds, “No place of grace for those who avoid the face/No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny/the voice.”

What then do we do? How then shall we live? At the end of his life on earth, as Jesus hangs on the cross, and once again God’s foolishness and weakness are on display, St. Luke says that Jesus’ “acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things,” (Luke 23.49). So here at the beginning of his earthly life, after they have seen “this thing that has happened” (Luke 2.15), the shepherds glorify and praise God for all that they have heard and seen (Luke 2.20). But best of all, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2.19).

Christmas is a frenetic time in our culture. It’s full of activity and noise. “Against the Word, the unstilled world still whirls.” Christians may be grateful that the world’s calendar does not coincide with the Church’s in this instance. According to the Church, Christmas begins tonight and lasts until the feast of the Epiphany, on January 6. As the unstilled world comes down from its Happy Holidays frenzy, be still, and come with the eyes of your spirit to see this thing that has happened - a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 

Be silent, both outwardly and inwardly, so that you can hear the unspoken, eternal Word of God, now made flesh, and come to dwell among us.

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