This Christmas, let silence be a gift
A Reflection for Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent
Find today’s readings here.
“Now you will be speechless and unable to talk
until the day these things take place,
because you did not believe my words,
which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” (Lk 1:20)
When I was seven years old, my family went to see The Nativity Storyin theaters before Christmas. The film dramatizes the events leading up to the birth of Jesus, and much of it was beautiful, hopeful and awe-inspiring to my childlike mind. But my experience watching one scene, the one that brings today’s Gospel to life, made me worry that God might be scary.
The reading from Luke’s Gospel follows Zechariah, a priest who also happens to be the husband of Elizabeth, cousin of Mary. Luke lets us know right away that the couple has struggled to have children; Elizabeth has been barren, and they are now well past childbearing age.
When Zechariah enters the temple to make an offering of incense, he receives a message from the angel Gabriel: Elizabeth is going to have a son, and the child should be named John. The angel makes grand promises about who John will be and the goodness he will bring, not only to his family but to all the children of Israel.
Zechariah then asks a simple question: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The angel detects doubt in Zechariah’s voice and issues what might feel like a harsh response: Zechariah will lose his ability to speak until the day John is born, when he sees that everything the angel has foretold has come true.
Maybe we, like Zechariah, will stop talking so we can get better at believing.
This scene in the movie terrified me as a kid. The temple is dark. Gabriel speaks in a booming, disembodied voice. When Zechariah asks to know more, the angry power in Gabriel’s voice is so strong that it almost strikes him down. In this interpretation, it’s clear that Zechariah is being punished. He rushes out of the temple after his encounter with tears in his eyes, visibly shaken, and Elizabeth and the crowd outside can tell right away that they’re looking at a man who has seen something disturbing that they won’t be able to understand.
What are we supposed to take away from an interpretation like this one? If we ask questions, will we be punished? Is God angry with us if we struggle to believe? Is God interested in taking things away from us?
If I were to direct my own movie version of this passage, I think I’d go about it differently. Gabriel wouldn’t shout. Zechariah might be stunned, but he wouldn’t need to be afraid. Instead of being a punishment for bad behavior, the loss of Zechariah’s voice would mark the beginning of a new chapter, one where the need to speak falls away in favor of the need to listen, to pay attention, to let go of control. God’s work would unfold, and Zechariah would never need to explain it on human terms. Silence would be a gift.
As we anticipate the blessings of Christmas, maybe quiet can be a gift to us, too. Maybe it will give us the opportunity to take stock of how this year has gone. Maybe it will allow us to listen more attentively as we spend time with our loved ones at holiday gatherings, truly taking in what they have to say instead of just thinking of what we’ll say next. Maybe we, like Zechariah, will stop talking so we can get better at believing.
Get to know Molly Cahill, assistant editor
Favorite Advent or Christmas themed art? My favorite Christmas song will always be O Holy Night. The melody is obviously beautiful, but each year a new lyric strikes me. This year, it’s this description of Jesus: “In all our trials born to be our friend.”
Favorite Christmas tradition?
The older I get, the simpler my answer to this question becomes. When I come home for the holidays nowadays, the thing I look forward to most is the great food and great conversation around my Nana’s kitchen table. Growing up, I got to enjoy this every day, and that meant that sometimes I took it for granted. Today, nothing feels more special than having my whole family together.
Which project are you most proud to have worked on this year at America?
These daily reflections! In the past, America has sent reflections to our subscribers during Advent and Lent, and this summer we decided to kick it up a notch: Now we write and share them all year long, and I work on coordinating and editing. It’s an ambitious project, but it’s a labor of love and a true team effort. I love what I learn about my colleagues and our contributors through their work for this series.
Favorite Christmas recipe?
My boyfriend’s favorite tradition growing up was Christmas cookie baking with his mom. Now we have a full day of baking in early December and make enough to feed a small army! We make so many kinds, but I’m partial to these Italian ricotta cookies.
Favorite Christmas photo?