As a culture, we have trouble adjusting to silence. Whether it’s our addiction to technology or we’ve grown used to the presence of a hum somewhere in the background, the absence of sound makes us uncomfortable. Silence forces us to think, speak, and respond. In worship, if the silent prayers go a little too long, the congregation becomes fidgety. Background music plays in every restaurant so our conversations at dinner become louder as we strain to hear and be heard. By the end of the meal, we’re nearly shouting at each other.
In the holiday season, it is impossible to find a quiet moment. Whether you’re baking cookies or decorating the tree, Christmas music needs to be playing somewhere in the house. Thanks to wireless home technology and blue tooth speakers, you can listen to Frank Sinatra in one room while the kids listen to their music in the living room. The perennial birth of Christmas noise recreates itself in venue after venue as we are relieved of the burdens of conversation, listening, and ultimately caring about what’s going on in the world around us.
We’ve made noise a sacred and sentimental part of the Nativity story. In the Little Drummer Boy, a boy bringing a drum invades the stillness of the holiest night on Earth to distract our focus from the most important interaction between God and humanity. The sound of his drum and his narcissistic desire to please a Jesus (who wants nothing more than our love) limits our ability to focus on the gift embodied in a God made man.
The Incarnation isn’t something to be read about, footnoted, acknowledged, mentioned in song, and then taken for granted. It represents the defining moment in human history. In order to focus on the Incarnation we need as few diversions as possible.
This why many of the other Christmas hymns we sing, songs we know and love, rely heavily on the idea of silence.
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm; all is bright round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” “Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight; glories stream from heaven afar.”
The Judean sheep people quake. How can one quake calmly and silently? Is it possible for one to remain even keeled after encountering the Heavenly host? I would argue not. Yet, our hymnody and scripture beg to differ. Silence precedes our first encounter with the divine. Words, however erudite they may be, cannot do justice to the idea of a God made human. Songs cannot convey the beauty of the cosmological moment culminating before our eyes. We are brought to a place of quiescence because there are no adequate words to describe what we are witnessing. Silence is our only option.
In the second verse of “Away in a Manger”, the lowing cattle awaken the sleeping baby Jesus. Will the noisy animals provoke the newborn’s emotions? No, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Critics of “Away in a Manger” point to the unlikely nature of this verse. “Of course Jesus cried”, they say. To insist otherwise is to deny his humanity. Not only this, it creates unreal expectations, imposing Victorian ideas of child rearing that were unhealthy when this song was written in 1887 and certainly not today.
“Away in a Manger” is a fairy tale lullaby that’s no more based in reality than Wynken, Blyken, and Nod. This doesn’t make it any less true. The text points us back the idea of silence. A sleeping Jesus exists in stark contrast to any words we might muster. In the silence, we’re left to ponder a God who has become a person, a God with no crib, a God surrounded by animals, and a God who made himself so vulnerable he died.
On Christmas Eve we will gather and sing songs extolling the virtues of silence. Yet, if we sang nothing, the day would find us still redeemed, joyful, and free. Christmas doesn’t depend on us or on what happens when we’re listening to hymns. Jesus speaks between the notes, in the rests, the breaths, and the pauses we easily ignore and willingly forget. Occasionally a note or moment of silence strikes us at the right time and place. It is then we realize, when we are vulnerable and only one person is capable of loving us despite all of our faults, and that’s the silent infant called Jesus.
Richard Lowell Bryant