This advent I have been noticing the theme of silence that creeps into several of our well-known carols.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given…
No ear may hear his coming…
And in one instance, of course, silence is the central theme.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright…
Why silence? Is silence somehow more virtuous than sound? Is a silent Jesus, sleeping in heavenly peace, somehow more desirable than a newborn infant sucking in life-giving oxygen for the first time, to lungs that are like wet clingfilm, and then belting it out again in life-heralding scream?
And let’s face it, childbirth was never a quiet, serene activity. The chances that no ear may have heard his coming that night in Bethlehem are extremely slim.
Yet the writers of these carols saw something more than sentiment when they wrote of the silence of his coming.
God’s silence may mean something other than the absence of sound. It may mean the silence of secrecy. When we think over the instances in which Jesus’ coming was heralded, we find that nearly all was done in secret. Gabriel spoke privately to Mary. Elizabeth’s baby leapt in her womb. An angel spoke solely to Zechariah. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. The wise men were led my a star that was meaningful only to them.
The only public announcement of his coming was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay. If you had been there, you would have heard it. But the point is that no one was there to hear it – apart from the shepherds, who were outcasts and didn’t count.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. A God who is everything our celebrity culture is not. Not loud, brash, self-absorbed, status-conscious, flash. But a God who comes to us without hype, without broadcasts, without fanfare – leaving us a quiet, respectful space in which to find him for ourselves.
Those shepherds – I’ve often wondered how they found the right house in Bethlehem: a baby wrapped like a baby and lying on straw is not the clearest of signs. But then, of course, he was probably screaming the place down.