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The Music of Silence:
The Birth of Jesus
A newborn baby lies in a manger lined with straw. His parents kneel beside him. Nearby are an ox and a donkey, perhaps some lambs and a few shepherds, and three strangely attired, exotic men offering treasures to the infant.
The cast and setting are familiar. The birth of Jesus, whether described in hymns and oratorios or depicted on canvas, in plaster or in wood, grandly or simply, remains perhaps the most widely known religious icon in the world.
So presented, the artistic rendering of the birth of Jesus originated not in the New Testament but with Saint Francis of Assisi and a few companions, and it has survived for more than seven hundred years. In 1223, Francis presented a kind of panorama for Christmastide near the village of Greccio in Italy. Because the Gospel according to Luke mentions that the child was placed in a manger (an animal feed-box), one of Francis's company said there must have been oxen, horses and mules in a stable. To Francis, the man's remark about animals recalled a verse from the prophet Isaiah—"The ox knows its owner, and the donkey knows the manger of its master"—and so some livestock were hauled in for the tableau vivant and carefully tethered next to a local family, who stood in for the original trio. And because the Gospel according to Matthew specifies a visit of an undetermined number of soothsayers or astrologers (the meaning of magi) and Luke mentions the presence of shepherds, Francis asked friends to represent them, too. From his devout spirit came the picturesque iconography of Christmas night.
Taking Francis's lead, artists representing the nativity since his time have often combined all the Gospel elements into a single lively scene. In the texts, each detail and each event is offered by either Matthew or Luke: except for the Bethlehem setting, the accounts vary in virtually every detail and are impossible to harmonize. But this poses no problem once we recall that each writer had a specifically religious purpose in constructing the event—a goal that reflected perfectly the faith of the community for and from which he wrote.
Only Ebenezer Scrooge, before his change of heart, would dare to tamper with the simple, moving beauty of the artists' scene of the nativity as rendered down through the ages. But like all art, it points to truths both within and beyond its components. Few people, after all, are unmoved by the situation of a poor, rural family and a helpless baby in distressed circumstances. Still, it is astonishingly rewarding to consider the various events and episodes constructed by the two Gospel writers who aimed to present the significance of Jesus at his coming.
A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
Set in the hills and equidistant between the Lake of Galilee and the Mediterranean, Nazareth was an obscure, sixty-acre village whose residents depended on agriculture for their livelihood. Tenant farmers, slaves and some transient day laborers worked the soil of a few wealthy landowners, whose domains (thanks to a temperate climate and adequate rainfall) produced healthy crops of fruits, grains and vegetables.
The most respected members of the community were not farmers, however, but merchants and manufacturers: goldsmiths, masons, tentmakers, potters, stonecutters, sandalmakers and—at the pinnacle of the trades—carpenters, who not only carved doors and furniture but also constructed and installed beams, roofs and staircases for homes and for the local synagogue (the religious meetinghouse), where the faithful met to read, pray and discuss Scripture and its written and oral interpretations.
Most private homes of the poor and middle class consisted of a room or two, each measuring twenty or thirty square feet, and the floor was the earth. With walls of straw and bricks, this small, dark, usually windowless cottage was usually connected to neighbors' dwellings. In a central courtyard were communal ovens, cisterns and millstones, a livestock barn and a storehouse for oil, wine and provisions.
Dietary staples included bread; roasted wheat, cooked into a kind of porridge; corn; lentils and barley; and grapes, peppers, dates, berries and olives. Fish from the Mediterranean and the Lake of Galilee were plentiful and salted to preserve against spoilage, but poultry or meat was a luxury. People drank water, goat's milk, diluted vinegar, date juice, a kind of beer fermented from barley, and a potent, filtered wine that had to be diluted with water. Still, few escaped repeated, debilitating bouts of dysentery, and very often people died from contaminated food. Few families had access to effective herbal remedies.
Among their few household possessions, most people had a lamp, made of clay and fueled by olive oil, and a storage chest, which served for clothes and setting up meals. Two or three plain floor mats were the typical bed; stones or wood fragments were used for pillows, and cloaks doubled as blankets.
* * *
On the other hand, Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem, was profoundly sacred to the Jewish people as the family home of King David and the place where he was anointed. But after the Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives, Bethlehem is never mentioned again anywhere in the New Testament, and Jesus is called "of Nazareth."
A primary proclamation about him in light of his Resurrection and new life was his reigning Messiahship or Lordship of the universe—an assertion beyond anything ever hoped for from the royal line of David. It is entirely possible, then, that the first Jewish Christians placed Jesus' birth in Bethlehem to affirm his status as the true Davidic King, especially since it is well attested that Jesus was descended from the line of David. Thus Jesus is proclaimed by faith as the representative personality of the new Israel.
As for the census decreed by the Emperor Augustus for "all the world"—a mandate that supposedly brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in the first place—this was, according to Luke, "the first registration taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." But in fact Augustus never registered the entire Empire (much less the whole world), and the Judean census, which would not have included natives of Nazareth in any case, was actually called by Quirinius when Jesus was about eight years old. In a small matter of fact, while attempting to establish a specific date in history, Luke has erred.
Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened ... [The wise men] set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star ... until it stopped over the place where the child was ... On entering the house, they saw the child ... and they knelt down and paid him homage ... offering him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh ... Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and flee into Egypt ... for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him" ... Herod sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.
These dramatic episodes are found only in Matthew: according to Luke, the circumstances of the birth are all peaceful and auspicious—shepherds come to worship the babe, angels sing, the child is named, and the parents travel peacefully to Jerusalem before returning to their own town, Nazareth. In Luke's account, there is no visit of wise men, no wondrous star, no flight to Egypt, and no slaughter of children by Herod, terrified of losing his primacy.
Every year at Christmastide, newspapers and magazines present imaginative articles by astronomers or Bible readers, attempting to find once and for all which star (or comet, or conjunction of planets) was followed by the wise men, came to rest over the birthplace of Jesus and was later recorded by Matthew. But to look for an astral phenomenon is to miss the point of the sublime literary and religious character of the text and of the deep truth it conveys.
First of all, there is no notice of such a dramatic astronomical spectacle in the records of the times. If indeed a star had attracted exotic characters from a distant land and miraculously marked the spot of Jesus' birth, why did this event have no impact on contemporary history, much less on anyone's later knowledge or impression about extraordinary circumstances at the time of Jesus' birth? Why had it no effect on his life or that of his family and friends? And if Herod the Great—the nominally Jewish King of Judea who was fiercely loyal to Rome—took such steps against Jesus, why did his son Antipas later have no knowledge of Jesus until late in Jesus' ministry? The answer lies in an appreciation that the star and the wise men are elements of religious truth, and their significance for faith is not found by arguing for their literal historicity.
At the time of Jesus, the motif of a symbolic star was linked by Jewish stories to the birth of Abraham. On the day of that patriarch's birth, according to a contemporary midrash (a meditation in light of rabbinic teaching), astrologers announced they had seen a star rise; just so, writes Matthew, the magi follow a star to Jesus—whom Matthew had announced in the first verse of his Gospel as "son of Abraham."
Furthermore, in the Hebrew Bible's Book of Numbers, the strange magician and astrologer Balaam spoke of the birth of King David and his victory over the enemies of Israel: "A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel." And the tradition of Isaiah hoped for the restoration of Jerusalem's fortunes after the Babylonian Exile: "Arise, shine, for your light has come ... Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." The star, in other words, represents not only a kingly individual but also the nation whose hopes he will fulfill: "The wealth of nations [i.e., of the Gentiles] shall come to you ... They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord."
Jesus fulfills all those hopes, Christians believed, and so his presence is signified by a rising star. With wondrously skillful use of traditional motifs in common Jewish currency, Matthew presents the faith of a community who believed Jesus to be the one whom all had awaited for centuries. In his new life after death, Jesus had fulfilled (indeed, surpassed) every expectation of ancient Israel. More to the point, after Easter, even the Gentiles—represented by the wise men—had come to adore. Jesus came for the Jews, proclaims Matthew in his first chapter, announcing the conception to Joseph after listing the Abrahamic genealogy; but, Matthew continues in his second chapter, Jesus is also for non-Jews—thus the point of "wise men from the East."
Matthew, writing from and for a Jewish Christian community, naturally turned to the rich traditions of Judaism. These were summarized by Flavius Josephus in his first-century history of the Jewish people, but they had long circulated and were already well known when Matthew's Gospel was composed (probably in the ninth decade of the first century A.D.). The stories concerned Moses' father, Amram, a sojourn in Egypt, the Pharoah's consultation with sages, a massacre of Hebrew boys and the escape of the infant Moses in the Egyptian wilderness. Taking as a starting point the Book of Exodus, in which the Egyptian Pharaoh threatens to kill Moses, Josephus's account documents a popular meditation on the holy destiny of Moses even from his conception, and on the apprehension he causes among the enemies of God:
Amram's wife was with child, and he was in grievous perplexity ... God appeared to him in his sleep, exhorting him not to despair of the future ... "This child [God said] will escape those who are watching to destroy him ... and he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt ..." One of the sacred scribes—persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future—announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites ... Alarmed thereat, the king ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed.
But Moses and his people were spared—thus the original Passover—and the fulfillment of God's promise was seen by the first Jewish Christians as the ultimate accomplishment of what was begun in the sojourn of their ancestors in Egypt, and their deliverance in the Exodus, many centuries earlier. Hence Jesus recapitulates the history of God's people in his entire life, death and destiny. Matthew has introduced the meditations on the significance of Jesus' life—culminating in the actual historical events of his ministry, death and Resurrection—with typically Jewish reflections of deep insight, in which Jesus is presented as the true Israel and the new Moses.
As for the family's precipitate journey to Egypt and their residing there for, it seems, two years—a period to which no reference is made anywhere else in the New Testament—this, too, is very likely Matthew's religious reflection, for it is incompatible with Luke's account of the peaceful, uneventful return from Bethlehem to Nazareth. More to the point, the slaughter of Jewish babies (a horrific act supposedly decreed at the time of Jesus' birth and impossible for Herod to hide, says Matthew) is not even alluded to in the writings of Josephus, who documents, usually with gleeful relish, the king's every reprehensible deed. Especially during the last years of his reign, Herod treated many people appallingly—it is all the more odd, therefore, that Josephus would have made not even the vaguest reference to Herod's atrocity against the children of Judea.
Instead, the religious background for Matthew's meditation is the Old Testament account of Pharoah's slaughter of children, Moses' in-the-nick-of-time escape and the Lord's subsequent oracle to Moses: "Go back to Egypt, for all those who were seeking your life are dead"—clearly fulfilled in Matthew's report of the order to Joseph, "Go back to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Thus, as the family resettles in Nazareth of Galilee (not in Judea, for now Herod's son is ruling there), Matthew quietly ends his dramatic two-chapter prelude and begins the Gospel proper with the person and proclamation of John the Baptist.
* * *
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" ... So the shepherds went and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger ... And when [Mary and Joseph] had finished everything required by the law of the Lord [the circumcision and naming of Jesus and the purification ritual of Mary], they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong.
The Lukan account, of course, is the story read on Christmas night in churches around the world—a text of dazzling beauty yet touching simplicity. Yet how divergent it is from Matthew's colorful mini-drama of wealthy astrologers, royal mayhem and a dangerous excursion to Egypt. But Luke is no less rich in his complementary proclamation about the significance of Jesus, expressed with different emphases for another Christian community.
The firstborn son, we are told, is wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger. How many people have wondered about the exact meaning of those clothes—and does it not seem strange that a mother would blithely place her newborn in an animal's feed-box? What is going on here?
As a matter of fact, Saint Francis's meditation on a verse from Isaiah was on target: "the donkey knows the manger of its master." For Luke, shepherds (not wise or rich men) are sent to find the Lord, who is the source of joy for "all the people." Contrary to the complaint of the prophet Jeremiah, who asked God why He seemed to have abandoned His people "like an alien, like a traveler who lodges in an inn," now the Lord and Savior of Israel does not stay in lodgings, does not stay in an inn, but comes as the nourisher and food of His people (in a manger) and dwells at last fully among them. The swaddling bands do not indicate abject poverty, but are (as Luke says) a "sign"—and they refer directly to Solomon, the wealthiest of Judah's kings: "I was nursed with care in swaddling bands, for no king has any other way to begin at birth."
* * *
And so Jesus, born in the royal city of David, is not found in an inn, like a transient alien, but in a manger—as the very sustenance of his people; and here Jesus is wrapped in the raiment of the true king.
The entire magnificent passage tells us, therefore, much more than what happened: Luke is not at all interested in the ordinary circumstances of labor and of birth. Rather, he tells us the meaning of this birth—God has a new relationship with His people. Finding the child in these circumstances leads the shepherds not to mourn for a poor traveling family forced into a stable; rather, they proclaim the glory of God, for He reveals Himself as a sustaining king in the life, death and Resurrection of the Jesus introduced by this overture to the Gospel.
* * *
And who are these people to whom the first announcement of the birth is made? Shepherds were not thought of in Judaism as sweet, sentimental pastoral figures, gently leading their flocks. Quite the contrary: they were the most common example of unscrupulous embezzlers, for they routinely led their sheep to others' lands, stole from neighbors and returned at night with more animals than they had in the morning. Like tax collectors of that time, they got rich by dishonesty. "For herdsmen and tax collectors, repentance is hard" ran a common Jewish saying of the time. More important still, the word "shepherd" became virtually a synonym for "sinner," and anyone engaged in herding flocks was denied civil rights and could be ostracized and even dragged into court. Yet it is these men who are the first to learn about the birth of a Savior: outcasts and sinners are welcomed, even the first to be invited into the presence of the Lord. And—shockingly, it must have seemed to the first hearers—they respond with simple piety and adoration.
Finally, the Lukan birth account has given us one of the most famous lines of Scripture, the angelic hymn—which has unfortunately been so long subjected to mistranslating, either as "Peace on earth, good will to men" or "Peace on earth to men of good will." But Luke's verse, based on a preexisting Hebrew and Coptic literary source, is properly rendered as "Peace on earth be to men who follow God's good will." Centuries later, precisely the same sentiment was expressed by Dante: E'n la sua volontade è nostra pace—"In His will is our peace." The divine will is not a restriction imposed on us, a destiny from which we cannot escape: it is a loving reality far more benevolent, and far more effective on our behalf, than our own will could ever effect.
* * *
The sense of the joy surrounding the entrance of God's son into the world is, then, related to the notion that peace comes to those who seek the compassionate presence of God, Who approaches us only to embrace and to forgive, to bestow meaning and to save. That is what, of all people, the sinner-shepherds hear and understand, for at once they rush to worship, as so many Gentiles and sinners came to know Jesus in his risen life. The herdsmen are Luke's equivalent of the Matthean astrologers—those outside Judaism by virtue of nationhood or sin. For them as for the devout Jews represented by Mary and Joseph, there is indeed "good news of great joy for all the people."
That exultation is directly connected to the name given by Joseph and Mary to their infant eight days later at the traditional Jewish rite of circumcision. By way of the Greek Iesous, "Jesus" derives from a shortened form of the Hebrew name Joshua (Yehosua), who was the successor of Moses; the name means "Yahweh is salvation," or "God saves."
After the return of the Jewish people from exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C., Jesus became a common name—for Yahweh had indeed, they believed, again saved His people from extinction. It remained popular until the second century A.D., when the quickly growing Christian faith led the Jews to abandon it and revert to the original longer form, Joshua.
But in the first century A.D., the name was so common that a description of origin was normally added in order to distinguish, for example, "Jesus of Nazareth" from the many who had the same given name. As early as the 50s A.D. (within twenty years of Jesus' death), Paul included in his letters many references to the widely known title "Christ" to designate Jesus. This word is a description: the Greek Christos translates the Hebrew word for Messiah, God's "anointed one" for whom all Israel awaited.
By the end of the first century, "Christ" had become so widespread that it was virtually a second name. Jesus, the one who saves, is proclaimed the Christ, God's anointed: such was the settled faith of those who had come to know him in his risen life. To this day, "Jesus Christ" is the form by which he is known—the label for this man whom the process of history may reject but whom it cannot ignore. "Jesus Christ," if nothing else, has entered all Western languages as, at least, a common exclamation of shock or anger, a universally recognized pair of cuss words. But to those who consider him not a dusty figure of the past but the one who is truly alive, the name is, as Bernard of Clairvaux said in the twelfth century, "a shout of joy and music to the ear."
* * *
The accounts of the birth of Jesus that we read in Matthew and Luke were created by them as transitions as well as curtain-raisers—or, to continue the literary-theatrical metaphor, they are like intermezzi linking the hopes of the Old Testament to the ministry of Jesus in the New. Hence they used Old Testament narratives and allusions to clarify the meaning of the Jesus event. Matthew presents Joseph (about whom virtually nothing is known from the Bible) as the father of Jesus—the spiritual heir of his namesake Joseph, the great patriarch of the Old Testament. In dreams, God speaks to Joseph about the birth and destiny of Jesus and leads him to Egypt in order to save the child and his mother; just so, the patriarch Joseph had been (thus the book of Genesis) "the dreamer" who went down to Egypt, where he saved his people from famine. Can it be accidental that Jesus' father Joseph is portrayed as the major New Testament figure to hear revelations in dreams—and is the only person to go to Egypt?
Later, to exterminate the children of Israel, the wicked pharaoh slaughtered male infants; Moses, however, escaped and led his people from bondage in Egypt. Just so in Matthew: the wicked Herod kills Hebrew babies, but the infant Jesus, the new Moses at the head of a new Israel, escapes and returns from Egypt to save his people. During Moses' journey to the promised land, Balaam, the magus from the East, proclaimed that the star of a Davidic king would rise in Israel. Jesus is indeed that saving king, announces the faith of the community addressed by Matthew: hence the conversion of foreigners, represented by Matthew's magi from the East who see the rising star of the true king. Revealed in secret to Joseph, Jesus is made known through the magi; Christ's identity, hidden and invisible, is to be proclaimed far and wide through the life of faith.
With Luke it is much the same. The Old Testament parents, Abraham and Sarah, are portrayed indirectly, in the figures of Zechariah and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist: the angelic announcement that infertility will be reversed; the querulous doubt; the ultimate rejoicing of the mother—Luke brilliantly re-creates the old in a revised version. As he was writing, it was clear that only through faith in what Jesus has already become by virtue of his ministry, death and Resurrection can the former dispensation of the Hebrew covenant be shown as preparation for the new.
And the ancient Christian hymns of praise put on the lips of Mary, of Zechariah and of Simeon (the temple prophet), are taken almost line for line from Old Testament verses in the psalms or the prophets. As Hannah brought her son Samuel to present him to the Lord and he was received by the aged Eli, for example, so Mary brings the infant Jesus to the temple, where he is received by the aged Simeon. Revealed in secret to Mary, Jesus is made known through the proclamation of the shepherds; once again, Christ's identity, hidden and invisible, is to be proclaimed far and wide through the life of faith.
* * *
How different all this is from the typical greeting-card idea of Christmas, with a perpetually smiling infant so tender and mild, sleeping in heavenly peace. I do not mean to be churlish or snide about our loveliest traditions in the West—it would be a shame even to try to do away with the humble Franciscan crib—but the exaggerated, bucolic sweetness of the seasonal images unfortunately masks the strong message of the Gospels. A romantic emphasis on treasures offered to the babe in the manger has so long drenched a rank commercialism that the deeper, richer significance of Matthew and Luke has been all but drowned.
These Gospels state that God has embraced humanity and entered into its suffering with unimaginable love. His Christ is the one who arrives not in royal purple but in silence and simplicity, far from the cheers that attend Augustus and Herod. A king he surely is—hence the swaddling bands and the treasures that are his due—but a new sort of king who makes no claim to worldly authority. In infancy as during his life on earth (and since), he arouses antipathy and even, by his person and message, provokes outright hostility from those who covet earthly supremacy. He comes to the shepherds, to the dissolute, to impolite society—thus, from the start, identifying himself with outcasts, the poor and the humble.
This is the Jesus whom Luke proclaims throughout his Gospel and announces in the first chapters. Instead of bestowing the great titles (King, Lord, Son of God) invented for earthly potentates, they are ascribed by Matthew and Luke to this humble child who, the authors knew, was later known to be God's ultimate spokesman, the healer, the one who utterly transforms human expectations and human destiny. To reduce the Christmas message to a comforting story of a baby, therefore, is to rob the Bible narratives of their strength and of their revolutionary character. The paradox of it all is precisely the message: real power lies not where the world either values or sees it.
In the event we celebrate each Christmas, it is indeed a historical moment that is honored—but no historical account, even if we had the eyewitness details, could do justice to an event that can only be perceived through faith. In Jesus' entrance into history, God has once and for all broken the clouds of obscurity and entered concretely into history. The self-disclosure of God, which began in creation, continued through the call of the patriarchs, accompanied the wandering of the people and was heard in the cries of the prophets and the longing of the psalmists—that revelation reached its zenith in the enfleshment of God in human nature.
And herein lies the crucial distinction between the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the other great religions of the world. Only in the continuum that reaches its fulfillment in Jesus is the relationship between God and man a downward motion. This is of course patently metaphoric language, but by it is indicated something quite real, quite concrete: that God enters definitively into the sphere of the human—that He takes seriously the reality of what He has made. God acts within history, not apart from it in splendid, transcendent isolation. He takes human suffering seriously, too.
And in Jesus of Nazareth God shows a human face. With tenderness that is literally unimaginable, He shines on the world an infinite compassion. Despite all the greed, political chaos, social dissension, great deceptions and local hostilities that characterized life then and continue to infect it now, mercy arrives like the stillness of night.
Nor is our suffering, our selfishness, our perversity—all of it emblematic of our need of God—trivialized by Him. God comes in silence, shrouded in darkness, to a world sunk in enmities whose sources it scarcely remembers. He claims us for His own and promises a final triumph—which, the Gospels announce and faith proclaims, has already been achieved and awaits only our acceptance.
The created order, according to Christianity, is not an illusion, not a vague representation of another perfect world, nor a dream that will one day vanish into oblivion when a sleeping deity awakens. No, it is a matter of something far more specific. God is the ground and basis of all reality—one might say that He is the ultimately real reality, alive and dynamic in everything that is. God provides the world and everything and everyone in it with a reference point, a goal and a meaning. He does not accompany the world alongside it, much less "above" it: from creation to the present, God acts within history, and within the most intimate points of our lives and activities.
That is the meaning of the incarnation, the enfleshment of God in the human dimension. "From Him we come," wrote the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, "in Him we are enfolded, to Him we return." That is the complete cycle: creation, incarnation, salvation. God makes, He takes what He has made for His own, He loves what He has made and saves it forever. That is gospel: good news.
Christmas is not, then, a time when we merely offer and receive material gifts: it is a season to acknowledge that God makes Himself His gift to us—and not just once but each day, each moment of always, and especially when our inner life grows old and jaded and seems to die. Whenever we turn to this reality, we know the good news to be true: we are forever befriended.
* * *
Two words of Luke's nativity account (with no parallel in Matthew's) are often ignored, but they are full of meaning. When the shepherds learn of the birth of Jesus, they are keeping watch over their flocks "by night."
The background for this small detail is the ancient Hebrew experience of God's saving act in their history. On the first Passover night, when God acted to save His people from destruction by liberating them from Egyptian slavery, He sent His omnipotent, salvific word—the "agent" of the divine judgment: "While gentle silence enveloped all things," we read in the Wisdom of Solomon, "and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped down from heaven, from the royal throne."
Jesus' birth at night thus marks the moment of God's ultimate "leap" from obscurity to full disclosure. And his birth, life and death are (in the words of Ignatius of Antioch, writing at the end of the first century) "resounding mysteries, wrought in the silence of God." A "mystery," it is worth pointing out, is not something infinitely unknowable or forever incomprehensible—it is, quite the contrary, something always to be further grasped, more deeply known. To put it another way, a "mystery of God" is something of the divine that knows and grasps you and me, that invites us into the life of God.
Good old Ignatius of Antioch: he knew something of the "silence of God," which speaks more loudly that any human speech or music or noise. Perhaps he had in mind the words of the New Testament's Letter to the Colossians, which referred to "the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed" to those who make themselves accessible to God's whisper—those who heed God in silence. This deserves some reflection, for the moments when God acts in history on our behalf, and the moments in which we reach out to Him, seem to occur mostly in silence.
Human discourse and writing about God and the things of God—yes, even the best of it, the Scriptures held sacred by Jews and Christians—are always inexact analogues, precisely because they are expressions limited by the specifics of culture. However necessary as a guide for faith, the Bible itself represents the attempts of human beings to express what is finally inexpressible: the identity, the nature, the meaning of God for the world. Behind the words are experiences that (faith insists) were manifestations of God within history. But the experiences occurred, were understood and were perceived as meaningful in silence—just as their meaning is plumbed by us in silence today.
In every case, human discourse is less clear and less creative than the silence of God. "While gentle silence enveloped all things," God made Himself known. And so He continues to do. "The Lord is in His holy temple," announced the prophet Habakkuk. "Let all the earth keep silence before Him."
This silence is not nothingness, it is not denial. God alone, who is our absolute future, remains (in the words of Karl Rahner) "the incomprehensible mystery to be worshipped in silence." Our fulfillment in His eternity remains, too, "a mystery which we have to worship in silence by moving beyond all images into the ineffable"—into that of which we cannot speak. Many earnest people throughout history have found a deep security and comfort in this, for we can say only what God is not, since He is beyond all human conceptions of Him. Hence, by rejecting false images, we can say that God is not a stern accuser, not a rich uncle, not a demanding accountant, not a passive spectator.
But it is possible to say something rather than only to deny the negatives—as long as we understand that our language is always metaphoric. It is at least possible to say that God approaches us not when we are babbling away about Him, but when we force ourselves to remain still: when we not only refrain from speech, glances, gestures and any form of communication, but when we try to let thoughts become quiet and emotions calm.
Deep interior silence is listening, heedful attentiveness, and it is the condition of prayer; it does not mean attending nothing, but becoming aware of the enveloping Presence that makes breath and life possible. This kind of quiet attention is not only essential for a discovery of who we are, what we are thinking, where we are going with our lives. It is also an absolute requirement if we are to allow God to be God for us, for in His presence we are all of us passive, all of us receivers. In His presence, we experience our contingency, our total dependence; that, too, is part of the good news, for we know that we simply cannot heal all our wounds, that for all our ideals and all our goals, we cannot provide ultimate meaning for our life, we can only recognize it. The source of it is elsewhere. "Be still, and know that I am God," the psalmist hears.
Silence makes thought and feeling possible, and thought and feeling give birth to articulation. Relationships—both revelations of relationships and insights into them—occur in silence; speech is the response to them. Hence we do not create with language: we belong to it and are limited by it, even in a way subordinated to it. It is in silence that we know we are beheld, in silence that we know how to respond. Writing or speech is our response to the prior reality established and discovered only in silence.
At the end of the twentieth century, it seems that we have made the noisiest, loudest society in the history of the world—and the most confused. An orgy of noises robs us of portions of our very being: announcers shout; music, movies and plays are overamplified; traffic becomes noisier each year; advertisements become more intrusive in the media. The effect of exaggerated sound and constant noise on the central nervous system of humans and animals is only just beginning to be felt: it seems to be a kind of madness, a dislocation of ourselves from ourselves.
Related to this is the speed and volume of communication and of travel, all of which is thought necessary simply because it is possible. Today we have the information superhighway, the communications explosion, the Internet, the ubiquitous probing of the media—asking questions, telling us things to frighten us or things to shock us or things to make us envious. We have constant commentary on just about everything, endless chatter and that modern artifact, the "talk show"—a curiosity in itself, for now "talk" has become a matter for "show." Yet despite the incessant noise, as numbing as background music in stores and elevators, there is very little depth and less reality in relations: for all the talk, there is precious little communication.
The creative life of the artist, like the inner life of everyone, depends on silent intuition and reflection before anything can be put into words or images, sounds or lines. In this regard, we can see that silence is not the absence of something, it is the most powerful event, the precondition for reality. "While gentle silence enveloped all things, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven." By putting distance between us and the time and space that usually control us, we enter into a creative moment of silence that makes effective our relationship with God. Saint Augustine was quite right: Verbo crescente, verba deficiunt—When the Word appears, words fail.
This is, of course, no new knowledge. In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah is told to go onto the mountain. "Now there was a great wind ... but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence."
And with that, Elijah—literally stricken with awe—wraps his mantle about his face, aware that he is, in the sound of sheer silence, in the presence of God.
|Ch. 1||The Music of Silence: The Birth of Jesus||1|
|Ch. 2||Unexpected Children: The Marvelous Conception of Jesus||18|
|Ch. 3||At the River: Jesus Meets John the Baptist||37|
|Ch. 4||Of Things Hidden: The Early Life and Times of Jesus||59|
|Ch. 5||The Lure: The Temptations of Jesus||76|
|Ch. 6||New Beginnings: Jesus the Jew||93|
|Ch. 7||Signs and Wonders: The Miracles of Jesus||106|
|Ch. 8||The New Ethic: The Parables of Jesus||128|
|Ch. 9||Beyond Morality: Jesus' Teaching on Sin and Forgiveness||145|
|Ch. 10||The True Country: On Faith and Prayer||161|
|Ch. 11||The Beginning of the End: The Rejection of Jesus||181|
|Ch. 12||The Supper: Jesus and the Eucharist||190|
|Ch. 13||Abandonment: The Death of Jesus||207|
|Ch. 14||Of Time and Eternity: The Resurrection||231|
|Ch. 15||The Hidden Jesus: His New Life and Ours||250|
|About the Author||298|
Posted November 14, 2004
I had high hopes for a comparitive religious study of the early christian history story, but was very dissapointed to find just another typical catholic rendition of their version of history. The author even stooped to making derogatory comments about other belief systems and their meaning of God's message to humanity. Sorry, thumbs down on this one.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 29, 2001
Posted April 23, 2011
No text was provided for this review.