What we can learn from the silence of Christmas

Walter Chavez via Unsplash

The hymns have been sung, the presents revealed—and in some cases, they still lie with the strewn wrapping paper, waiting to be returned. The food and drink consumed, the calendar page has turned from Dec. 25 to Dec. 26. While some have already taken down their holiday decorations, for many, the Christmas tree still stands, beautifully lit.

Despite the joy and the hope, the peace and love that is the meaning of Christmas, life has moved on with its business of triumphs and tragedies. Many are eager for the next holiday, preferring the non-stop party that epitomizes New Year’s. For some, what matters is the moment, not the hope that Christmas brings.

Advertisement

The fanfare has stopped and the trumpets with their sheet music have been put aside; the pageants and the plays are done for another year. Christmas has become silent, just as it was on that first night in Bethlehem, when in the cold, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and even the animals of the field gathered around the newborn child who entered our lives to become the Savior of a forbidding and forlorn world.

When Christmas becomes silent, that is when it speaks the loudest.

Christmas is a wonderful and joyful mystery and we humans can never, ever really understand it. We perceive it, however dimly. And perhaps it is God’s plan that it be so. From the very beginning, God knew we needed saving from ourselves, and he set out to do so through Christ. So much of human history from the time of Adam and Eve had been Sturm und Drang, all noise and clamor. So, when that night in Bethlehem came, God decided something different. He would enter the world quietly, without fuss. He would enter our lives as a simple child, not as a conquering emperor or a fiery messenger, as in the prophets of old. He would be born of a “mean estate” (as the saying goes)—nothing elaborate, in the most abject way possible, on a bed of straw in a manger, surrounded by the trappings of poverty, yet rich in love and adoration.

The only ornament to decorate that night was the star in the sky, surrounded by smaller, distant stars. Indeed, we have a Christmas song about that night, and when “the Little Lord Jesus” wakes, “no crying He makes.”

Christmas is the occasion for silence. It is in silence that we see much, for we understand so little in the noise and the clamor. We see two people, who each in their own way consented to God’s will and to each other: The Immaculate Mother who gave her “yes” and the just man, though beset by dreams and worry, joined his “yes” to hers. We see the frightened shepherds, consoled by the angels to “fear not,” who came to be witnesses of something special. And we see those who—privileged and powerful in the world’s sight—came to prostrate themselves before what they beheld.

Christmas has only begun; it can never be “over.” And, sadly, while the vicissitudes of life can mar belief in it, causing people to discard it like so much worn wrapping paper, it doesn’t make Christmas any less important for us. Jesus, the “God-Man” came to “pitch his tent among us” and be with us along the way. He did this in the most unobtrusive way possible, in silence.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
3 months 4 weeks ago

Merry Christmas Mr. McAuley! I have difficulty understanding that First Christmas as you describe it in your interesting essay. Responding to yours, I feel at liberty to resend this post from another site with some changes, hoping to offer another point of view, which if not acceptable hopefully someone will delete it.

Yes, 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, it seems to me, 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 were probably 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 you yes, the First Christmas was a holy night and a silent night, all was calm, all was bright. Bu at times noisy too? Well, based on parental experience with my wife of more than fifty years, I’d say the probability is great, remembering the “truly man” behavior of our newborns. A Blessed New Year to you and your Family!

Linda Vogt Turner
3 months 3 weeks ago

Bruce, a very real human baby would cry and make its needs known. The Gospel story is about how God becomes human and dwells among us. When all is quiet, when Apollos born in Alexander (Acts 18:23) motions for silence (Acts 19:33) and when Peter motions for silence (Acts 12:17), Peter is let out of prison and the divine feminine in the Greco-Roman world is vindicated as people shout "Great is Artemis". Understanding the mystery of the Gospel stories about how the divine incarnates, or dwells among the first Christians and still dwells among Christians today is a mystery that the "little person" known as Mary makes known when her voice pierces the silence at Christmas and at Easter. The little person giving birth to the Gospel aka Paul speaks to the mystery and says...
"…11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside childish ways. 12Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love."

When the house is silent or the inn or the boat sheltering the animals is silent, that is when the little woman known as the Immaculate one or the clean one speaks and delivers her divine conception that allows Jews and Gentiles to realize the mystery of the Trinity. So too for the human family...when the baby is quiet and is smiling or waving a hand...Mama can attend to her visitors or spend some time with Papa. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you too Bruce. Thanks for speaking up.

Bruce Snowden
3 months 3 weeks ago

Hi Linda, Thanks for taking time to respond profoundly to my reflections on Mr. McAuley’s insightful essay on the importance of “silence” at Christmas. Since in God-time there is only the everlasting “Now” no past, no future, silence prevailing whatever is going to happen has already happened. Regarding Christmas its “silence” is the way to comprehend Paul’s “dim reflection” of the Word, even when that Word is but a Baby’s gurgle, or the noisy and teary language of need. The gurgle of Baby God enlightens those who listen and the “Mystery of Faith” in and through which we struggle and live, is soul and mind mind-boggeling, isn’t it? But at the same time liberating!

I read your response with great interest and found myself riveted to the text, very scriptural, mystical, yet tangible as in the warm blood-flow of a living person, your composition requiring concentration, not a flippant reading. It reminded me of a venture I attempted in my younger years, a man who knows a little about many things, but not very much about anything namely, the reading of Pierre T. de Chardin’s “The Phenomenon Of Man,” to discover through inquisital, not flippant paging the answer to one of the book’s proving purposes that evolution, still happening, is a Godly provision, proclaiming thereby a liberating truth. The holy Jesuit priest and paleontologist Chardin said, “God makes things make themselves!” Within the quiet realm of Christmas too, it seems to me that God makes things make themselves in practical in mysterious ways. You helped me to understand confirming my belief that the gurgling of Baby God and teary language of need, still happening, are first words of Jesus telling that intimacy with God leads to God’s intimacy with us. That’s how I read it. That’s Christmas! To you and your family, have a happy and blessed New Year! Again Thanks!

Advertisement
More: Christmas

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

Of all the things I looked forward to while pregnant with my son, reading books to him was very close to the top of that list.
Kerry WeberApril 24, 2018
Here is how the hands dance
Kwame DawesApril 24, 2018
If God were sick, the heart would swallow itself like a pill
Meg EdenApril 24, 2018
Álvaro Manuel Conrado Dávila was shot in the throat by police at close range with a rubber bullet.
Brian StrassburgerApril 24, 2018