Today we did a Christmas pageant at the church I pastor. It was written by a youth leader, and was about the history of the Christmas Carol, Silent Night. The title of that hymn is actually a bit odd, if you think about it. I mean, if Jesus really was born in a stable, with angels singing and cattle lowing and donkeys braying, and shepherds praising, the first Christmas probably wasn’t that silent.
This year my Christmas isn’t going to be that quiet either. Our kids are coming from New York and Montreal. Including significant others, that’s five. Gillian’s friend from Japan, Aya; her brother and sister-in-law from Halifax, and her brother in Toronto are all staying for several days. That makes nine. And Mariya and Dela are coming in from San Francisco and Berkeley, respectively. Eleven guests, plus Irene and I.
We’ll stay up late laughing, shouting, talking politics and religion. David will make three times the necessary noise banging around pots and pans cooking a meal or two. Taps (my grandson) will be chasing his remote control car with siren up and down the hallway.
But for now, tonight at least, the house was silent. Tonight Irene and I sat in front of the fire with a glass of red wine. We played a bit of quiet Christmas music. I fell asleep with a book open on my lap.
I love the silence. I cope with busy commutes by turning off the car radio. I get ready for the day by taking the dog for a long walk. I used to listen to podcasts on those walks. Now I just trudge in silence. I daydream.
I love the silence. Max Picard, a Roman Catholic philosopher, writes in his book, The World of Silence, "Outside the forest, the flowers are like silence that has thawed, and glistens in the sunlight." I like that—“outside . . . the flowers are like silence that has thawed.” One of my favorite Bible texts—an important one for pastors to take to heart—is Ecclesiastes 6:11. "The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?"
In my heart I'm an introvert. I know how to be with people, how to get my oar in during conversations at a party, how to do a “meet and greet at church.” But I get my energy from being alone and silence is my reward.
What about you? I know that we can’t all be introverts. We need both extroverts and introverts to make the world go round. But just as introverts need to learn to make their peace with noise, I think extroverts can learn to appreciate the gift of silence.
Here is why. We all have a secret place of refuge, a sanctuary, in our souls. It is where we go to ponder the most difficult questions life throws at us. It is where we construct the meaning we spend our lives achieving. This sanctuary in our souls is where we cultivate gratitude for the good others have done for us and nourish the goodwill we need to love our neighbours.
And that sanctuary in our souls is a place that can only be entered alone. It is therefore a place of silence: a speechless silence full of awe on account the miracle of the universe; a prayerful silence that yearns for peace on earth; a respectful silence that honours life’s great mysteries. The silent sanctuary of our souls is a refuge for those tossed to and fro on the violent currents of time and civilization. The silent sanctuary in our souls is one of the few places we can hear the still, quiet voice of God, if Her voice is to be heard at all.
And in the end, that is how I take the Christmas carol, Silent Night. Not silent because the animals really were, or the angels lost their voice. But the song sings of a silent night because the story of Jesus’ birth takes our breath away. We are dumbfounded by the story’s suggestion that God is not just notion, not merely the answer to a philosophical puzzle, but Gof is here, with us and in us.
And so we respond, with the ancient Psalmist, in a whisper, “let all the earth keep silence, before him.”