Like humble shepherds, we kneel at the foot of the miracle of creation in silence and awe
One of the things I have always found funny about Christmas is the number of hymns that talk about silence. Our favorite is usually “Silent Night.” When we sing the song on Christmas Eve, we dim the lights and enjoy a quiet moment of reflection. But that holy night was anything but quiet. Bethlehem is inundated with people coming in for the registration. The fact that there is no room for Joseph and Mary tells us how crowded Bethlehem is. But Mary and Joseph not only have to tend with homecoming revelers, they also have to contend with the animals over whose abode they have taken. Add into the mix a screaming newborn, and the idea of a silent night is almost comical.
But Mary and Joseph get even more noise than that. You see, nearby shepherds hear a cacophony of praise from the heavenly hosts in the middle of the night. Their night has been anything but quiet too. Instead of trying to get the animals and themselves back to sleep, they decide to go into town and see this thing that has come to pass. And so, they spend the night, talking to Mary and Joseph, maybe taking turns trying to soothe baby Jesus. When they leave those rudimentary quarters, they leave town praising and glorifying God. Yes, this is no silent night for the shepherds either.
I think that is why I enjoy our Christmas Day celebration. Silence is in short supply on Christmas Eve. We sing carols, we hear the giddy laughter of children awaiting gifts, stockings, and cookies, and we chant the mass, singing our traditionally spoken words. For those of us with small children, even the wee hours of the morning of Christmas Day are loud – filled with cries of elation, joy, and battery-operated toys. But on Christmas Day, after a noisy night and morning, we make our way to church and find, perhaps for the first time, the silence for which we have been looking. We do not sing carols. We do not have to speak over the hubbub of full pews. Instead we gather in relative quiet, and tell the old story again – but this time with a softness that cannot be found on Christmas Eve.
What I love about finding true silence on Christmas Day is that our morning is structured a lot like I imagine that first holy morning being structured. Christmas Eve was full of noise – of animals, shepherds, angels, and crying babies. But that next morning, the dust has settled. Gone are the shepherds and angels. The animals have calmed down after too many midnight guests. I even imagine baby Jesus has given in to sleep, since most newborns get their nights and days reversed for the first few weeks. Into this relative quiet is when I imagine Mary treasuring all those words and pondering them in her heart. The night before was just too loud. The exhausted, travel-weary, physically and emotionally spent Mary gets a moment in the morning to begin to process what God has done in and through her. After the break of dawn, as the sun rises and the loud revelers and news deliverers have gone, she can have a quiet moment as she rocks or feeds baby Jesus and ponder in her heart this child at her breast.
I do not think that night was silent. But I understand why our hymnodists would want to talk about silence. I think that is why I prefer the hymn, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” Instead of depicting a silent night, that hymn invites us to keep silence as a form of reverence. The first verse says,
“Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.”
I like the hymn because that is the kind of pondering I imagine Mary does in her heart this morning. Unlike most new mothers, I do not think she is worried about the impact of birth on her body or even about her humble surroundings. I imagine her thoughts that morning are consumed with nothing earthly minded. Instead, I imagine her heart is pondering the blessing of Christ our God descending on earth through her – and the enormity of the event drives her to pay silent homage as she gazes on Jesus’ precious face.
That is what the church invites us to do today as well. We structure a morning for worship. The dust of giftwrap, egg nog, and stocking stuffers has settled. The noise of carols, singing choirs and priests, and antsy children in pews has faded. The anxiety of preparing for the big event of this day has eased. And all that is left is a moment to let our mortal flesh keep silent before the Christ Child. This morning we take a moment to ponder nothing earthly minded, and instead join Mary as she ponders all that has happened in her heart. We come to church on this holy morning to ponder the miracle of the Christ Child. We honor the way in which God is ever trying to honor the covenant God has made with us – willing to go to the extreme of taking on human form to care for and preserve us. Our God’s love knows no bounds. Humbled by that knowledge, we come to pay God homage.
The question for us in our pondering is what we will do with that love. Though we make space this morning for silence, we do not remain here all day. Like any other Sunday, the priest will dismiss us to go in peace, and serve the Lord. Any time we feast at Christ’s table, that is our charge: to take whatever sustenance we have gained and to go out into the world to do the work that Christ has given us to do. Certainly that may involve cooking, travel, or more gift giving. But the news we ponder in our hearts today is much bigger than today. Today we are commissioned to consider the impact of the birth of the Christ Child on our lives. What will our response be to the God who is so faithful to God’s covenant with us that God would take on human flesh to redeem us? We may need still need to ponder in our hearts what that response will be. I cannot imagine a better day than today to keep pondering what new work God is crafting in our hearts. Amen.