Quiet and stillness, silence and calm: the backdrops of Christmas. “For while all things were in quiet silence and the night was in the midst of her course,” the Book of Wisdom tells us, “thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne.”
“Infinite stillness,” Romano Guardini wrote, “hovered over Christ’s birth. For the greatest things are accomplished in silence.”
Infinite stillness continues to hover over Christ’s birth, thanks in large part to the world’s favorite Christmas carol. Few things are more wonderfully somber than “Silent Night” at the end of a Christmas Eve Mass, lights out and candles on, everyone pregnant with joyful expectation.
But is “Silent Night” really our favorite Christmas carol? Does its quiet joy really sit in the typical American’s heart during the holiday season?
The Christmas season today seems better captured by the quick-paced “Carol of the Bells,” whose lyrics and tempo spur hustle, bustle, good cheer, funky holiday drinks and, of course, shopping.
Can these two seemingly contradictory dispositions — quiet and clanging — both have a place at the Christmas table?
The Season of Paradoxes
The Bible is full of paradox: He who loses his life saves it, the greatest among you is least, the last shall be first.
These aren’t just cute plays on words. One of the greatest modern Catholic thinkers, G.K. Chesterton, used paradox repeatedly in his works. The literary device playfully spiced up his writing, but mere wordplay wasn’t his primary intent. “What appears to be superficial playing,” literary critic Hugh Kenner wrote about Chesterton’s paradoxes, “is really an intense plumbing among the mysterious roots of being and language.”
Paradoxes, Kenner noted, cut to the very root of the universe, as evidenced by the greatest paradox of all: the God who died.
I’m not surprised that the Christmas season paradoxically calls for both “Carol of the Bells” and “Silent Night.” Hustle and contemplation, bustle and prayer. If Mother Teresa built her sainthood around similar contradictions, we can build a joyful season around them. I don’t think she’d disagree with a Christmas paradox like, “To be peaceful and serene, you must be busy and active.”
A bit of reflection reveals a few different angles of truth in that paradox. Both dispositions reflect our paradoxical nature: body and soul, intertwined and working best when both are healthy and active. If the most contemplative monk dirties his hands with gardening, the most devoted mother can hustle to give her children a joyful holiday season.
O Little Town of Blogosphere
The paradox of the Christmas season thrives in the blogosphere. Everything is on display.
For those who lean toward the “Silent Night” disposition, I’d recommend a visit to Godzdogz (godzdogz.op.org). It offers meditations proper to each of the liturgical seasons. I also highly recommend Holy Cards for Your Inspiration (thewindowshowsitall.blogspot.com). This unique blog is pretty and simple: a different holy card every day. Its blogger, Micki Cesario, tells me she’ll be posting Christmas holy cards during the season.
Meanwhile “Carol of the Bells” types might try By Sun and Candlelight (dawnathome.typepad.com) and blogs by Catholic mothers busy with their children’s holiday celebrations, especially Minnesota Mom (patentsgirl.blogspot.com), Waltzing Matilda (tiredtwang.blogspot.com) and Blessed Among Men (blessedamongmen.blogspot.com).
If you want a mix, try O Night Divine (maryellenb.typepad.com/o_night_divine), a blog dedicated entirely to Christmas. If you want a blog dedicated to the culture war of keeping Christ in Christmas, see The True Meaning of Christmas (christinchristmas.blogspot.com).
Though the blogosphere may be “Carol-of-the-Bells” chatty, if you enter on Christmas, you’ll largely find a literal Silent Night. The few bloggers who post at all typically offer a mere Christmas greeting or a handful of Christmas quotes or pictures that they probably programmed days earlier.
Pope Benedict has exhorted the faithful not to poison the Christmas season with materialism and consumerism.
“In today’s consumer society,” he told a large crowd at St. Peter’s Square, “this time of the year unfortunately suffers from a sort of commercial ‘pollution’ that threatens to alter its real spirit.”
The Holy Father is concerned that, in our day, “Carol of the Bells” overwhelms “Silent Night” to a degree it was never meant to.
He’s right, of course. Advent is a season of quiet expectation. It’s also a season of penance. I used to think there shouldn’t be any bustle or parties, and the gross displays of consumerism disgusted me. I railed against it like King Canute trying to hold back the tide.
But it later dawned on me: There can be no Christmas celebration without preparation. You can’t be Mary if there’s no Martha. You can’t have a blow-out family celebration on Christmas morning unless you’re ready with gifts, candy and breakfast. You can’t honor the entire 12 days of Christmas — visiting distant relatives, spending time with friends, ringing in the New Year — unless you’ve prepared.
And the preparation requires activity, which in turn spills excited joy into the soul. And where there’s joy, there’s an urge to share it. The bustle of preparation spills over into parties and celebrations, people jumping the gun before the 25th. It’s unfortunate, but understandable.
The simplest grandmother could have told me all this 20 years ago, but, in my ignorance, I didn’t get it till now.
Christmas celebrates great paradoxes — the God made man, the Almighty baby, the coming of great joy to undertake the greatest sadness. Fittingly, it’s marked by contradictory traits: hustle and contemplation, bustle and prayer, “Carol of the Bells” and “Silent Night.”
We shouldn’t be surprised and we shouldn’t complain. We should simply enjoy. We need more contemplation, sure. But without activity there would be no celebration. And without celebration Christmas would be a dark affair.
That would hardly be an appropriate way to mark the birth of Everlasting Light.
Eric Scheske blogs at
The Daily Eudemon (ericscheske.com/blog).