What makes this night
different from all others?
Our faces lit before the fire,
we repeat the old stories
and count the constellations.
Or we sit
in the habit of silence
like someone long married.
Until the angel appears
with its stab of glory
and we are sore afraid.
We hear his shouted greeting
at once so jocular and familiar
and yet so strange and unearthly.
We hear too
the beating of many wings
like the sound of many waters
and the bleating of the frightened sheep
who scatter in alarm.
But we cannot
because we are struck
dumb with wonder.
Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, I feel that I can listen to Christmas Carols in good conscience. Though to be honest, I actually started somewhere around Halloween. Yesterday I was reflecting on the line from O Little Town of Bethlehem which goes: “How Silently, How Silently the wondrous gift is given….” In this lyric Philips Brooks is comparing the stillness of Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth to the silent miracle of salvation.
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
But Brooks’s lyric is also a reminder to me of how often silence is a feature of our experience with God. We know that God can speak. The Bible tells us that He spoke creation into existence. We read the Bible and regard it as His word. Yet for many–I would say most– of us it feels that God responds to us in silence. This is one of the things that tends to make prayer so hard. We feel as if we are engaged in a one sided conversation. We don’t know what to make of God’s silence and so misinterpret it, just as we might the silence of a friend or lover. We think that God’s silence is proof of His absence or we take it as a sign of disinterest. It is easy to see why. We have been taught to think that people who care speak up. Those who don’t speak don’t care.
That’s also why so much of the communication we hear these days seems to come in the form of a shriek. Whether it is an audible shout or an emoji filled, all caps, bold face post on social media, outrage has become our culture’s primary Love Language. So we naturally think that if God does not respond in some emphatic way to our pleas it must mean that He doesn’t care about us.
We equate God’s silence with disengagement. In Psalm 28:1 David says, “To you I call, O LORD my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit.” Notice the connection between silence and deafness. This is our fear when it comes to God’s silence. We worry that it means that God can’t hear us or even worse that He won’t hear us. One of the ironies of this is that in the Bible we find that God’s speech can be more difficult to bear than His silence. According to Exodus 20:19 when the Israel heard God declare the Law from Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as His go-between: “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). God’s silence is sometimes a sign of judgment. But it may also be a mercy.
Silence doesn’t necessarily mean disinterest. It is also a mark of attention. Those who listen are silent. Silence is also emphatic. Silence often acts as God’s exclamation point, forcing us to focus on the situation at hand. Instead of speaking to us in words, God communicates through our circumstances. Silence is a feature of stillness and stillness is a characteristic of those who wait. “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” Psalm 37:7 urges, “do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” Those who are still are waiting for God to act.
Such a strategy seems counter-intuitive in this age of activism. I mean we can’t do nothing can we? Surely we should do something! Of course the answer is that when we are still, we are doing something. We are waiting. We are expecting. We are trusting. Stillness is the atmosphere of Bethlehem, as God draws near in silence and relative obscurity. When the time had fully come, God sent His Son (Gal. 4:4). When our time is fully come God will act on our behalf. In the meantime, the best thing we can do may be to be still and wait.
Now that Advent has arrived, I suppose it is time for my annual Christmas lament. I am reluctant to speak. I am afraid of adding another shrill note to the year’s collective shriek. Everybody, it seems to me, is up in arms. Every word is an affront. It is tempting to blame our national mood on the election, but I believe its roots go deeper. If the outcome of the election had been different, I do not think that the tone would have changed. It would only have meant that different voices would be singing the same parts. We are all outraged now.
Outrage, of course, is often appropriate. It was the chord struck by the biblical prophets. An ancient aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine says that hope has two daughters: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the same. Without a doubt there is much in the world that deserves outrage. But I am struck by how little modern outrage is able to accomplish. For all its heat and fury, it has not proven to be an especially powerful engine for driving change. Perhaps this is because we are really enamored of a different set of twins. Proverbs 30:15 declares, “The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” The cry of our age is not the cry of love or even of justice. It is the cry of “measureless ambition,” a voice which says “me first” and “I’m here now.”
I cannot help being struck by the difference in Jesus’ tone. It was predicted by the prophet Isaiah who declared, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets” (Isaiah 42:2). Despite the shout of joy that Heaven uttered at His birth, Jesus came into the world in relative obscurity and deliberately refused the limelight. When they tried to make Him a king by force, He opted for the path of solitude and suffering instead (John 6:15). This was not because He shunned royal office. Jesus knew it was His by right. Rather, He took this route because He knew that the only way to put things right was to take the wrong upon Himself. The beauty of Christmas is not the romance of a babe in a manger but the mystery that poet Richard Crashaw celebrates when he speaks of “eternity shut in a span.” It is the astonishing fact that God became flesh and lived among us in order to take our sin upon Himself, working justice by His own death and resurrection.
I realize how foolish such measures will seem to those who are focused on tales of power. Yet it is God’s own self-admitted folly, designed for those who would rather exclude Him from their world than make room for His definition of justice. As for me, I will kneel in silence with Richard Crashaw and wonder at the sight:
To thee, meek Majesty! soft King
Of simple graces and sweet loves,
Each of us his lamb will bring,
Each his pair of silver doves;
Till burnt at last in fire of thy fair eyes,
Ourselves become our own best sacrifice.