The sounds of the season are upon us, and Christmas can indeed get pretty noisy. Of course, some of the noise is happy: cheerful greetings, conversations about Christmas plans, the sounds of carols and hymns—well, that’s not noise, it’s music—all of that is a joyful part of the season. But there’s also the noise of crowded malls, car-clogged parking lots and drivers honking horns in traffic jams. That’s the noise we’re trying to avoid.
In contrast, the events of the first Christmas seem to be surrounded by silence. Two kinds, actually: the silence or near-silence of the people involved, and the silence of Sacred Scripture on certain details surrounding the Savior’s birth. Christmas seems to be about people showing up and doing quietly what they are asked to do.
Mary, of course, is the prime example. Scripture does not tell us much about her. I wonder what she was like, and what her relationship with God was like. She is the only human being who ever prayed from a soul without sin from its beginning. Yet the Gospel of Luke tells us that she was “troubled” by the Angel Gabriel’s greeting—“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”—and she wondered what it meant.
The angel told her what was to happen, and answered Mary’s question about how this could be although she was unmarried. The exchange seems to have been brief, and then the angel waited. The fate of God’s entire creation, and each of us, hung in that silent space until Mary said, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
Joseph accepted from God the great responsibility of protecting and caring for Mary and her Child. Yet the Gospels contain not a word he spoke. St. Matthew tells us that when Joseph discovered that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant, and decided to divorce her quietly, an angel appeared and told him that Mary conceived the Child by the Holy Spirit, and to take her as his wife as he had intended. No words of Joseph are recorded then, or in Bethlehem, or in Egypt, or when he and Mary were searching anxiously for the young Jesus. But Joseph is there, doing what God asked him to do, supporting and protecting Mary and Jesus. He might have been a man of silence, but he was surely a man of faith and action.
Bethlehem cannot have been quiet when Christ was born, with throngs of people having come there to be counted in the census ordered by Caesar Augustus. St. Luke gives us a few words about the events following the birth: the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, and the shepherds’ words to each other: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing which has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” Again, words followed by action.
Mary, who with her Child is at the center of the event, again is active but silent. St. Luke tells us, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” That seems to me a good thing for us to do, too: To find a quiet time and place and reflect on this miraculous birth and what it means for us. Not just “us” as humanity, not just all of creation—but each of us, individually. It is for each of us that Christ was born—not just for humanity as a whole, but for each unique person, created by God to love him and to reflect his love in his or her own way.
I am thinking about that: What can I learn from the silence of those in the story of Christ’s birth? What do I need to ponder in my own heart? First, of course, the inexpressible love of God, who came to redeem us so that we might live with him forever. And then the great power we hold to bring Christ to a world that doesn’t even know how much it needs him—just by showing up and doing what God asks of us.