CHRISTMAS SILENCE AND SONG
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Paradox is simply the recognition that opposites can both be true. The Christmas story is loaded with paradoxes. The most profound revolving around the Christ-Child Himself: The eternal Son born into time and the Infinite Spirit embodied in finite flesh. The creator of all space having no room in the inn; the invisible made visible; the perfect made incomplete and the limitless made limited.
The list goes on and on even to the most minor details like the paradox of that first Christmas being both a night of silence and a night of song. If you read through the Christmas hymns in a hymnal you will see these two themes stand out often, some with a focus on the silence and others with a focus on the song. For example, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, specializes in silence. "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dream-less sleep the silent stars go by." The third stanza goes, "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven." Then there is, of course, the most famous of all, "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."
The other focus which is on sound, shatters the silence of that holy night with loud songs of jubilant joy. You have for example, Joy To The World, where the heavens and nature sing. You have, Angels We Have Heard On High, sweetly singing o'er the plains and Hark, The Herald Angels Sing, and in Come All Ye Faithful, the second stanza, "Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exaltation, o sing all ye citizens of heaven above."
This duel focus on both the silence and the sounds of Christmas should clue us in to the duel nature of Christmas. It is a day and a season for both contemplation and celebration. It is a time for both reflecting and rejoicing. It is, in other words, a season that is meant to have an impact on both our minds and out emotions; Our thinking and our feeling. Let's focus first on-
This simply means to meditate, think about, and study spiritual things. This was the focus of Mary on that first Christmas. In the midst of high emotions with the angels and the shepherds making a lot of noise about the birth of Jesus, verse 19 tells us, "but Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." She represents the quiet and thoughtful side of Christmas.
Mary was not in on the anthem of the angels. She did not hear all heaven ring as the angels sing. The focus of Mary was on the baby in her arms, and all the implications of being a mother to the Messiah. If the challenge of parenting makes you worrisome at times, imagine how Mary must have felt. The wheels in her mind were turning rapidly as she wondered, what now? How do I enter into what God is doing in the greatest event of all history-the Incarnation? This calls for contemplation and not just celebration.
It takes some profound thinking on the part of all us to make the coming of God into history relevant to our purpose for living. Much of the meaning of Christmas is wrapped up in the way God came into this world. An unknown author wrote,
"Christ could have come riding on a rainbow,
the winds driving His chariot, the Milky Way
serving Him as a heavenly boulevard, while the
glittering stars like so many jewels clustered around
Him. He could have advanced upon this world with
great pageantry, accompanied by innumerable
bands of trumpeting angels, with bright, shining
cherubim His attendants, so that every eye would
have seen His true glory.
"But instead he chose to arrive on this planet
almost unobserved. Silently, wrapped in the swad-
dling clothes of humility, He willingly shared the
poverty of a humble family, content to be cradled
in the foul-smelling stable of a little obscure town
called Bethlehem! He stooped so low that He might
reach us in our depravity, lift us out of the mire of
sin, and set our feet on the heavenly pathway. What
condescension, bringing us redemption!
The song writer says, 'Out of the ivory pal-
aces, into a world of woe, only His great eternal
love made my Savior go.'
Paul in Phil. 2 says this is to be the Christian attitude in life. We are to contemplate on the condescension of Christ, and do likewise by forsaking selfishness, and striving to focus on the needs and interests of others. We are to be little Christs trying to demonstrate anew to the world what Jesus did for the world on that first Christmas. This means we are to have the spirit of Christmas all year long.
What is the spirit of Christmas? It is a host of things but we want to focus on what Paul says in Titus 3:4 where he writes, "when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us...." The Christmas spirit is the spirit of kindness. The coming of Christ was the appearing of God's kindness. Everyone of the characters in the nativity scene were characterized by kindness. If it was not for Herod, every person in the entire Christmas story would be characterized by kindness. He alone was mean and cruel.
The Innkeeper gets a bad rap for he is often portrayed as being mean. It is mere negative speculation that he turned away the holy family. The positive speculation has more evidence. The manger was likely connected with the inn and they could not have settled in there unless the Innkeeper had said, "there is no room in the inn but we can't let you go off with no place for the night. Let me show you to the stable where you will at least be warm." It is likely the Innkeeper was hospitable and kind. It is likely in that every other person in that scene was kind. The shepherds and the wise men came in the spirit of kindness. The wise men even brought gifts that Mary and Joseph needed for their time of exile in Egypt.
The angels were kind enough to share the good news of Christ's birth with the lowly shepherds. The spirit of kindness covers all the Christmas characters like a garment. This spirit has been picked up by the tribesmen of Liberia and a missionary has translated their concept of Christmas as follows-
"Whoever on the night of the
Celebration of the Birth of Christ
Carries warm water and a sleeping mat
To a weary stranger,
Provides wood from his own fire
For a helpless neighbor,
Takes medicine to one
Sick with malaria,
Gives food to children
Who are thin and hungry,
Provides a torch for a traveler
In the dark forest,
Visits a timid friend
Who would like to know about Christ,
Whoever does these things
Will receive gifts of happiness
Greater than that of welcoming a son
Returning after a long absence,
And though he live to be so old
That he must be helped into his hammock,
And though his family and friends all die
So that he stands as a trunk stripped of branches,
Yet life will be sweet for him,
And he will have peace,
As one whose rice harvest is great,
And who hears his neighbors
Praise the exploits of his youth.
So will you receive happiness
If you do these acts of love and service
On the night of the celebration of Christmas,
The Birth of' Christ."
Kindness reveals that Jesus is still present in this world through His body the church. When the head was born the body was born too. Some feel the church was born on Pentecost, but that is when it was spirit-filled. The church was born with the Head on Christmas. When the head of the baby makes it out of the birth canal the body is not far behind and so it was with the body of Christ. Jesus had followers the day of His birth. Joseph and Mary of course, but the shepherds worshiped Him and went immediately to proclaim to others the good news.
The coming of Jesus was the coming of the First Comforter. Later at Pentecost He sent another Comforter, but Jesus was the first.What does a Comforter do? He comforts by acts and words of kindness. He cheers you up and gives you hope. This is the challenge of the contemplative side of Christmas. How can I be a channel of God's kindness so the world can see Christ is still active in history? Keeping Christ in Christmas means to keep on doing today what God was doing on that first Christmas in showing kindness to a world that deserved judgement by providing a way to peace with Him, and a way to eternal hope. This calls for contemplation on our part as we seek to have the mind of Christ in relating to the world with a spirit of kindness. Now lets look at-
To the shepherds, that first Christmas was a night of unmatched sound of celebration. It was calm and quiet up to the point when the angel of the Lord appeared and frightened the wits out of them. They no doubt heard their hearts pounding when the glory of the Lord shown around them. As far as the record shows, they were the only people in biblical history who got to hear the angels sing on earth. John was caught up to hear them sing in heaven, but I am not aware of anyone else who ever heard them sing on earth. The prophet Isaiah had a vision in which he says in Isaiah 6, that the angels above the throne of God were calling to one another, " holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is full of His glory." He heard them while he was on earth but the angels were in heaven. Only at Christmas did the angels sing on earth in great celebration.
From that point on it was more like a New Years Eve celebration for the shepherds. It is now a new era not just a new year. The turning point of history has come and nothing can ever be the same. When they went to the manger and confirmed the angelic message verse 20 says, "the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told." In contrast to Mary who sat quietly thinking about all that had happened, they were on an emotional high, shouting and praising God and adding to the joyful sounds that filled the air that Christmas.
Their personal lives had not changed that much. They were still lowly shepherds who had to watch sheep the rest of their lives. They were still the lower class of society with fewer rights than other people. They did not receive a change of status or get angels coming to them each night to provide music and entertainment in their lonely jobs.
What did they get out of that first Christmas that made them celebrate? They got a glimpse into the future that gave them hope. God is at work in this world and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven has come down to earth in this baby, and now all history will be different. There will be a new focus in history for this baby will do something which makes God's plan of salvation the primary focus. The shepherds were not just celebrating because of their good fortune of being chosen to receive this revelation. They were not just celebrating being among the few in all of history to hear the angels sing. They were celebrating because now history was filled with hope. The message of Christmas is good news for all people. Their hearts were expanded for they knew they were in on a secret that would bless the entire human race.
In contrast listen to these lines from Dr. Seuss's How The Grinch Stole Christmas,
"The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don't ask the reason. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small."
That is the problem with all who cannot, or do not, celebrate Christmas. Herod was one of these. He could not get his heart to expand beyond himself and accept the gift of God. He was locked into a world where all that mattered was his own ambitions. It takes a big heart to see the big picture. The angels had enormous size hearts, for they knew all the negatives and yet they were celebrating.
How could these beings who knew that Jesus would be rejected, in spite of His perfection, be singing? They knew He would not call for their intervention to save Him from the cross, yet they called His birth good news of great joy. It is because they see the end result is that man will at last have a champion and a hero who can reverse the curse and open the door of hope, so men can be saved and join them in everlasting praise.
The shepherds had large hearts as well, and as soon as they saw the Christ child they joined the angels in glorifying and praising God. For all with large enough hearts Christmas is a celebration. The New Testament has a special vocabulary for those whose hearts are big enough to see beyond the sin and folly of man to the gift of life in Jesus. The major words are bless, thank, worship, glorify, honor, magnify, extol, rejoice in, sing to, and declare the mighty works of God. All of these are to be a part of Christmas for it is the celebration of the greatest Gift ever given.
Ann Weems has written a poem that expresses what
Christians ought to feel about the celebration of Christmas.
"Each year about this time I try to be sophisticated
And pretend I understand the bored expressions
Relating to the "Christmas spirit."
I nod when they say "Put the Christ back in Christmas."
I say yes, yes, when they shout "Commercial" and
"Hectic, hectic, hectic."
After all, I'm getting older,
And I've heard it said, "Christmas is for children."
But somehow a fa-la-la keeps creeping out . . .
So l'll say it:
I love Christmas tinsel
And angel voices that come from the beds upstairs.
And I say three cheers for Santa Claus
And the Salvation Army bucket
And all the wrappings and festivities and special warm feelings.
I say it is good
So hooray for Christmas trees
And the good old church pageant.
Hooray for shepherd boys who forget their lines
And wise men whose beards fall off
And a Mary who giggles.
O Lord, you were born!
O Lord, you were born!
And that breaks in upon my ordered life like bugles blaring,
And I sing "Hark, the Herald Angels" in the most unlikely places.
You were born
And I will celebrate!
I rejoice for the carnival of Christmas!
I clap for the pajama-clad cherubs
And the Christmas cards jammed in the mail slot.
I o-o-o-oh for the turkey
And ah-h-h-h for the Christmas pudding
And thank God for the alleluias I see in the faces of people
I don't know
And yet know very well.
O Lord, there just aren't enough choir boys to sing what I feel.
There aren't enough trumpets to blow.
O Lord, I want bells to peal!
I want to dance in the streets of Bethlehem!
I want to sing with the heavenly host!
For unto us a Son was given
And he was called God With Us.
For those of us who believe,
The whole world is decorated in love!"
May God help us all to get involved mentally and emotionally with the Christmas message. Let the silence of Christmas motivate us to contemplation on how we can be channels of God's kindness. Let the song of Christmas motivate us to celebration. Let us make some joyful noise in praise to God for the gift of His Son. Let's get in on the best of both worlds-Christmas silence and Christmas song.