Why the world falls silent at Christmas

Gerard van Honthorst Adoration of the Shepherds.

Have you ever noticed how there are—really, rather blessedly—almost no speaking parts in Christmas pageants? This makes them superb for performance by children. We want the kids to learn the story, and it is easily executed. They dress up and master the most rudimentary of blocking, but there are very few lines to memorize.

If you go back and read our two infancy narratives, which are found in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, the Christmas story really is a very silent night. The Magi and King Herod have a dialogue before and after the birth of the babe, though, given that this leads to the massacre of the innocents, it is never performed in Christmas plays. Matthew’s only other speaking role—and again, these appearances frame the silent night—is the angel who addresses Joseph in his dreams.


Have you ever noticed how there are almost no speaking parts in Christmas pageants?

Matthew’s three kings always make a splendid entrance in kid’s pageants, but they lay down their gifts in silence. Just as well, as, according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, one little girl, watching in the audience, asked her grandmother, “Is the Franky Scents like aftershave?” And there is always the director, who thinks that it’s a good idea to give the kids lines not found in Scripture. At one nativity play, “the third wise man was hilarious when he marched up to the manger and bellowed: ‘Frank sent this!’” In another, whatever the Virgin Mary was supposed to have said, it was surely not what the girl playing her adlibbed. She told Joseph, “I’m having a baby—oh, and it’s not yours...”

In the Gospel of St. Luke, if you include the annunciation stories—though not often performed, they are part of his infancy narrative—there are lots of speaking roles: the Archangel Gabriel, Zechariah, Mary and Elizabeth. And Simeon addresses the babe in the temple. But come the eve in question, the night of Christ’s birth, and the humans fall silent. Only the angels speak.

Come the eve in question, the night of Christ’s birth, and the humans fall silent. Only the angels speak.

Of course, even without adding lines, there is no guarantee that kids will completely understand the words being read from Scripture or sung in the carols. For example, Jesus was not born in a stabilizer. There is no such thing as Orient tar, and the line in the carol is not “while shepherds washed their socks so bright...” Indeed, at one carol service, a child inquired of her grandmother, “Who’s Carol?”

And sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, things just go wrong. In one nativity play, “the crib collapsed as Mary placed the baby Jesus in it. Quick as a flash the headmistress stepped up and asked: ‘Is there a carpenter in the house? Besides Joseph?’”

Ponder, for a moment, the reticence of the evangelists, the silence of this night.

Ponder, for a moment, the reticence of the evangelists, the silence of this night. There was good reason for human voices to fall silent, voices that for too long had talked of power, of violence and of hatred. Why, even the angels’ voices surrender to the stillness of this night, when God, for the first time, directly addresses his Israel and the waiting world, revealing himself as Father.

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word (Heb 1:1-3).

Yet tonight there are no lines to record, because the Father bespeaks himself in a single word, a still-silent word, his newborn Son Jesus. St. John of the Cross said of God the Father: “By giving us, as he did, his Son, his only Word, he has in that one Word said everything. There is no need for any further revelation.”

Tonight there are no lines to record, because the Father bespeaks himself in a single word, his newborn Son Jesus.

This is not a night for humans to speak. This is a night for us to ponder, to adore, and to pray in silence. Tonight, “the grace of God has appeared, saving all…” (Tit 2:11). Here, in poverty and abasement, the eternal Father speaks his living Word into the world, a fragile, vulnerable word of peace and reconciliation.

What all our homespun nativity pageants get right is the secondary nature of carols and sermons. At Christmas, we are meant to see the Word of God, to gaze upon the impoverishment of God’s love. Christ comes to us as a child, and this is something any child can see and comprehend.

At Christmas the world falls silent. Today, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the eternal Word is spoken by the Father into the world. Gabbing gives way to gaze.

And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14).

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Dr.Cajetan Coelho
3 weeks 6 days ago

Christmas offers peace and inner joy.

Bruce Snowden
3 weeks 6 days ago

I understand what Fr. Klein’s essay on why the world falls silent at Christmas, using his words mean. Christmas is awesome, like viewing a starlit sky on a dark night in the countryside. That experience has left me speechless, gasping at its wonder like a little child, managing to whisper the following utterance, “Wow! My Daddy God did this!”

Yes indeed, it is a silent night, a holy night, all is calm, all is bright, Mary’s now empty womb sinewed to Resurrection’s now empty tomb, the unifying connection, Christmas and Easter, one without the other impossible! Both awesome the world falling silent at each, Poinsettias and Lilies high fiving!

However, prodded by the inspiration of another example, namely the reality of the normal, the “truly man” behavior of a newborn infant in this world of ours, the Christmas story really is a very noisy night! Listen to Baby Jesus in an Animal Feeder nicely called a “Manger” squirming and screaming, “Mother change me, I’m wet!” Or “Mother feed me, I’m hungry!” This latter probability gives muscle to Augustine’s assurance that, “Mary gave Milk to our Bread.” Of course she did! The newborn infant destined to become our Blessed Bread of Eucharist. Gradually silence was victorious as Baby Jesus was quieted having been burped on Joseph’s shoulder and Mother Mary’s sweet lullabies.

Another probable cause of a not so silent night on that First Christmas, is that the Holy Family very likely were not the only pilgrims forced into that Animal Shelter some with noisy children, due to the fact that there was no room in the Inn. But I won’t further develop that thought as enough has already been said and I do agree with Fr. Klein. Yes, the First Christmas was a holy night and a silent night, all was calm, all was bright. Noisy too? Well, based on parental experience with my wife of more than fifty years, I’d say the probability is great. Merry Christmas everyone! And a Blessed New Year!


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A boy presents a hat to Pope Francis upon his arrival at the international airport in Trujillo, Peru, Jan. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“Just as the apostles faced the storm on the sea, you had to face the brunt of ‘El Niño costero.’”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 20, 2018
Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating Mass at the Maquehue Airport near Temuco, Chile, Jan. 17. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“Pope Francis’ statements...were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse,” Cardinal O’Malley said in a statement released Jan. 20.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 20, 2018
 Pope Francis and Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski stand outside the presidential palace in Lima, Peru, Jan.19.(CNS photo//Mariana Bazo, Reuters)
“The degradation of the environment...cannot be separated from the moral degradation of our communities.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 20, 2018
The U.S. bishops had an unusually busy year issuing positive and negative statements about the new president, but some hoped for more decisive action against his policies.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 19, 2018