The silence of his coming

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.

At the bottom of the Mound

Tim Chalk's Nativity, Princes St. Edinburgh8

Hurtling down the Mound this week on my bike, I found myself slamming on squealing brakes as I reached the bottom, despite the lights being green.

Tim Chalk’s compelling sculpture of the nativity was what arrested me. In particular, it was the realism of the skinny newborn, draped over Mary’s shoulder, which caught my eye. “I’ve seen babies look like that,” I thought.


As I looked closer, what struck me about this scene was its sense of ordinary busyness – nothing rushed, but something in progress. The baby is old enough to have been fed, cut from his umbilical, washed, burped, and lulled to sleep. He has not yet been wrapped in a cloth and laid in the manger, although Joseph is there at the ready.

nativity_bottomWhat the artist has chosen to show us is not the face of the Christ-child, encircled with a glowing halo, but Jesus’ bottom – a dangerous hold for any new parent. “Behold, your saviour comes!”

At the ‘back’ of the sculpture we see a shepherd gingerly entering the stable to offer a new-born lamb, watched by an eager sheepdog.  Outside, a shepherd-boy carries another lamb to a second shepherd, who lingers outside, as if the stable is sacred space.



This scene at the rear was lit by the December sun reflecting off the shop-fronts on Princes St., drawing attention to the shepherd-boy’s offering. Caught between the shops of Edinburgh’s commercial heart, and the classical grandeur of the Royal Academy building behind, the power of this humble, busy scene was magnified.

As I rode away, I left in a swirl of thoughts and feelings. A real baby, bottom and all. A young girl, who took a risk. An eager, if unskilled, father. The humble offerings of simple people. The location: rustic, sacred ground, sandwiched between symbols of commerce and culture. Clues, this Christmas, of where we might find the child.

As easy as incarnation

When Advent comes round, I know it’s time to take an intellectual deep breath, and to try to get my mind around the mystery of Word made flesh. Not that I ever will, but the imagination likes to try. Each year, the lines from some old hymn pops up at this point:

Our God contracted to a span;

Incomprehensibly made man.

It makes the incarnation sound so difficult. But I wonder… Surely an omnipotent God, who hurls galaxies into distant space, can enter this world as easily as we can flick a crumb from our finger?

Or was it the risk involved that was the difficult part? The love of the Trinity straddling earth and heaven, compressed into flesh, hemmed in by time, knowing human pain, and ultimately experiencing separation for a time?

I don’t know. But we do have some inkling of what incarnation means for us. It means being willing to enter other’s worlds, as the Word entered ours. It means laying aside our status, our ‘glory’, to get alongside others. It means being willing to pop up in the backstreets of the world, where kings can’t find us. It means opening ourselves to becoming refugees in this world. It means paying attention to the details of this person, this place, this story. It means honouring the body, and resistance to those who abuse or destroy it.

This isn’t something to get my mind around, after all. If only it were that easy.