Silent Night? Are We With the Shepherds … Or Herod’s Soldiers?

SDG’s homily for Christmas Eve, 2018

Photo by Victor Xok on
Photo by Victor Xok on (photo: Register Files)

On this very night, exactly two hundred years ago, the world received a great gift: one without which tonight would not be the same for so many of us. In 1818, in a small church in a small town in what is now Austria, for the first time, the Christmas carol “Silent Night” was sung.

Many people don’t know that the lyrics for “Silent Night” were written by a young Catholic priest, Father Joseph Mohr, who asked a church organist named Franz Gruber to set it to music. There’s a popular legend about the organ being damaged by mice or water which I won’t go into.

Since then, “Silent Night” has been translated into hundreds of languages and spread to every continent. Pope St. John Paul II once remarked that “everyone knows” this carol, which he said “moves us deeply by reminding us that Jesus, the Son of God, was born of Mary, born to make us holy and to make us adopted sons and daughters of God. It is a hymn to the creative power of the Holy Spirit. It is a song to help us not to be afraid.”

I don’t know what the choir has prepared tonight, but in past years they’ve often ended by singing the first verse in the original German: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! “Silent night, holy night!”

Those two adjectives — “silent” and “holy” — are connected. Silence we know through the senses; holiness we grasp through the spirit. But silence comes first and then holiness. Our spirits cannot know the holiness of this night if our senses don’t experience the silence. We can’t know the “heavenly peace” at the end of the first verse, the “peace on earth” proclaimed by the angels, without silence.

The silence of St. Joseph

We see this so clearly in the silence of St. Joseph. It’s not just a negative silence, an absence of any recorded sayings of Joseph in the Gospels. Joseph’s silence is reflected in his inner attentiveness and responsiveness to the secreting promptings of heaven.

To Mary the angel appeared and spoke plainly, but Joseph only had a dream — a dream that could be forgotten or dismissed. He had already thought this through and decided that it was for the best if he and Mary parted ways. He hadn’t reached that decision lightly.

But now! The message of this dream turned everything upside down. He thought he knew what God would want him to do, but now he was confronted with something unimaginably different — something terrifying and humiliating, not at all the life he had foreseen for himself.

He was a just man, but a man who struggled and doubted like any of us. People dream things. It was no different in those days. A decision like this was no easier for him than it would be for any of us.

But Joseph had cultivated closeness with God. The idea that his own best judgment about what he ought to do might be wrong was not unthinkable to him. He was willing to reorganize his life around a message in a dream that he discerned was no ordinary dream — but even more around the life of this young woman whose mystery of holiness was so far beyond him, but who needed him, along with her unborn child, a still more unfathomable mystery.

“In Killing Silence, Man Assassinates God”

Such closeness to God is impossible without silence, today as then. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that silence has not only become in our day the rarest thing in our world, it’s become a kind of pestilence to be stamped out on sight.

Wise words from Pope Benedict XVI:

Technical progress … has made human life more comfortable but also more keyed up, at times even frenetic. Cities are almost always noisy; silence is rarely to be found in them because there is always background noise…

But the real problem, Benedict points out, is that “Some people are no longer able to remain for long periods in silence and solitude.” Instead, he says, they “seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images, out of fear of feeling this very emptiness.”

We don’t live in monasteries. A certain level of noise and even chaos in our homes, especially for families with children, is normal and natural.

But I’ve known households where two or even three televisions were left on all the time whether anyone was watching them or not. Or the radio: at home, in the car, in the office, always on.

And of course now social media, iTunes, podcasts, the whole Internet are at our fingertips from the moment our eyes open in the morning until they close at night. Earbuds or earpods deliver a constant flow of sound.

And it’s not just decibels. It’s distraction, if not addiction. Text messages, alerts, notifications, advertisements, clickbait headlines, the constant availability of social media. Even secular psychologists and social scientists are concerned about the toll of all this distraction on our mental and even physical health — to say nothing of our spiritual health.

None of this technology is bad. Our adoration chapel is a bastion of silence and contemplation, but the work that goes on behind the scenes organizing and staying on top of things relies on a dozen different technologies, from text messages to Web applications. Used well, social media fosters community and brings people together. But it so easily dominates our lives.

In killing silence, man assassinates God. But who will help man to be quiet? His mobile phone is continually ringing; his fingers and mind are always busy sending messages … Developing a taste for prayer is probably the first and foremost battle of our age. Stationed in garrisons of the most pitiful noises, is man prepared to return to silence?

That’s Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, in his recent book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.

At Christmastime we set up Nativities and crèches and sing carols about the shepherds and the wise men coming to worship the newborn king. But if we live our lives in the tyranny of noise and distraction, killing silence, killing God, then we need to ask ourselves:

Do we want to seek the newborn king with the shepherds and the wise men — or with the soldiers of King Herod?

Silence and Worship

That’s a rather grim image on Christmas Eve! But let’s follow St. Joseph in our willingness to rethink many things in our lives.

Christ the newborn king comes to overthrow all tyrants and dictatorships, including the dictatorship of noise. Cardinal Sarah calls for a “resistance movement” against the tyranny of noise.

Technology used well can be a powerful tool, but silence is something for which we have to be willing to fight and sacrifice. Already in the 19th century, the Christian writer Søren Kierkegaard was writing things like this:

If I were a doctor, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, it would be choked to death with noise… Therefore, create silence.

Create silence. How can we create silence in our lives?

It begins here, in divine worship.

Even before the Mass begins, as we come into church, we leave behind worldly clamor and enter the stillness of God’s house. Ideally we arrive five or ten minutes before Mass to give ourselves time to quiet our spirits — and incidentally silence our cellphones, or better still turn them off completely — to prepare to celebrate the Mass in silent meditation and prayer. (That’s how it should be. Some churches before Mass sound like a bus station. It shouldn’t be that way.)

I would encourage you to extend this into the hours before Mass, at home and in the car on the way to church. Turn off the radio. Turn off whatever it is you turn on.

Within the liturgy there are moments of silence, starting right in the beginning, as we are invited to acknowledge our sins in the penitential act. There’s that moment of silence to think, “Sins. Right, those sins.”

There’s silence after each of the readings to reflect on what was proclaimed. Don’t just waste those moments. Likewise after the homily there’s a moment to meditate on what was preached, and, hopefully, find some value in it. Silence before and after communion to prepare ourselves to receive the Lord in his whole being, the flesh and blood born of Mary in that stable in Bethlehem, and to savor with gratitude his presence with us. Emmanuel!

Christian silence is not silence for its own sake, silence that is mere emptiness, as it might be in some Eastern religious traditions. Silence by itself accomplishes nothing. Our silence must be purposeful, ordered toward love of God and neighbor. I leave you with the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta:

The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.

Peace on earth. Heavenly peace. What ends in peace begins with silence. Merry Christmas.