The Silence of Christmas

shutterstock_148013429One of the most astonishing things about the nativity is its silence.

In my freshman history class our professor one day read aloud two stories – one relating the birth of Siddhartha Gautama (later to be known as the Buddha) and another the birth of Jesus Christ. The contrast could not have been more profound.

The first child was born in the midst of an almost hyperbolic opulence – in an aromatic orchard of blossoming trees surrounded by a thousand attendants, with gods and elephants and jewels and showers of rose petals and fabrics woven of precious metals and celestial perfumes that filled the air. And when Gautama was born he is said to have taken seven steps and proclaimed, “I alone am the world-honored one!” His birth seems (especially in comparison with the birth of the Christ) a riotous affair.

There is no need to retell the story of the birth of Christ, for it is familiar – indeed, much too familiar. It is so familiar that frequently Christmas comes and goes and we have not spent five minutes imagining what it was really like. But if we did we would surely be bowled over by the huge absurdity of the thing.

That, I suspect, is what our professor hoped to accomplish by his juxtaposition: to engender in us that awareness of the absurdity of the nativity. For the wise man knows that the surest way to reignite a flagging appreciation of the uniqueness of some one thing is to put it into contrast with some other, very different thing. And indeed, this sort of revelation through comparison works best when the two things being compared share some similarity, but then differ on the very thing that we wish to reveal, which then shines forth like a single star in a black sky. And so while the Buddha and the Christ were both believed to be saviors of some kind, in their first moments on earth one drew all of the world’s attention to himself and declared himself to be “world-honored”, while the Other covered Himself in a nearly complete veil of silence.

Certainly, we are told that following the birth of the Christ there were appearances by angels and even a chorus of singing angels, and in this sense the nativity bears some remote resemblance to the Buddha’s birth. But, curiously, the angels of Luke’s account of the nativity did not appear in the cave in Bethlehem, did not regale the Christ child with song; instead they appeared, in an almost irrelevant fashion, in the hillside outside the town, to a group of shepherds. It is almost as if the angels were under strict orders to keep quiet about the whole affair, but could not keep their promise out of sheer, exuberant joy: and so they broke their silence for one glorious moment, behind God’s back (for indeed, for the first time in history God could be said to have a back).

It is as if God were the generous and well-loved mother of many children who has reached a noteworthy milestone (say, her 60th birthday), but who, in keeping with her lifelong habit of private self-abnegation strictly orders her children to promise not “to make a big deal” of it, and, certainly, not to throw a big and embarrassing party. The children may keep the letter of their promise out of respect for their mother’s wishes, but they will still probably call up her closet friends, and remind them of the birthday and possibly suggest that they drop by on her birthday for tea as if “by accident.” And by so many sly and underhanded and roundabout gestures they will ensure that their mother is made to know that it is a day of especial importance, and that she is the center of it.

This seems to me to be the attitude of the Christmas day angels, who, like that mother’s children, sought out the Christ child’s closest friends – the humble and simple shepherds – and seemed to say, “Well, we aren’t supposed to make a big deal of it, but if you could drop by and pay your respects it wouldn’t be a bad idea. After all, it is His birthday.” On Christmas day the cave with the God-man in it was left completely unmolested, without any “to-do,” except for a brief visit by a few close friends.

This particular aspect of the Christmas story reveals an enormous truth that our civilization seems hell-bent on forgetting; strangely, we seem most bent on forgetting it during the very season that celebrates it. It is the same truth found throughout the scriptures, and the same truth that all of the saints throughout history have repeated. It is simply this: that God is encountered in silence.

Indeed, without silence one will never come to know God.

This particular truth, it seems to me, is one that is especially important for those who work for, and who read LifeSiteNews to meditate upon. And there is no better time to meditate upon it than now. For it seems to me that those of us who are so concerned about the state of the world that we have taken upon ourselves the daily reading and writing of the news about the most important issues in the world, are playing with fire. The news is a noisy, busy, hectic, distressing, insistent, distracting thing. It fills our head with facts and consumes our thoughts, and, particularly at this juncture in history, can disturb our souls with a sense of despair for our civilization and our race.

Of course, this is not how it should be. Indeed, it seems to me that rather than disturbing us, all this reading and writing of the news, which is so necessary to inform and to be informed, as we ought to be, should continually drive us back to silence, most especially the silence found in meditative prayer. This is not only true for those stories of hope that we daily report on, where we see the culture of life breaking upon us like the dawn, and which fill us with gratitude, but also for those distressing stories that lead us to wonder if it is not merely a false dawn, to wonder if we are not merely entering a new and darker night.

In both of these cases we should be driven towards the silence of Bethlehem; in the first, in a positive way, by having discovered a piece of Bethlehem in the world, and in the second, through the via negativa, by having discovered what the world is like without Bethlehem, which should then lead our souls to fly to Bethlehem for refuge.

If we find in the writing for, or the reading of LifeSiteNews, that we are excessively disturbed and have lost our peace, it is a sure bet that it is because we have forgotten Bethlehem and all those other moments of silence and obscurity in the life of Christ, which allowed him to meet with an unshaken peace and hope not only the noise and insistency of the multitudes that followed him wherever he went, but also a violent and disreputable death.

And so, during this Christmas season, let us renew our resolution not to be disturbed by anything: to cultivate within ourselves, through daily prayer, the silence of Bethlehem, which will allow us to meet with resoluteness all challenges to this supernatural peace, which is, in a very real sense, a foretaste of heaven.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on CE on Dec. 31, 2008. 

image: Fresco of Nativity scene by Karl von Blaas, Vienna/Renata Sedmakova /

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage