By Vir Christi
There’s something special in the air at Christmastime that people can’t quite put into words. If asked, they’ll tell you it’s the “Christmas spirit.” Oftentimes, if you ask people to elaborate on what exactly that means, they’ll struggle to find the words. It’s a unique quality, one that binds both Christians and non-Christians together in a profound way. As joyous a solemnity as Easter is for the faithful, it doesn’t seem to bind people together from all walks of life as Christmas does. So what is it about Christmas that makes people feel so united?
I propose that this is silence: an underrated theme that Christmastime carries with it.
The evidence for this in both religious and non-religious sources is pretty compelling. One need only look at the plethora of Christmas music to see the references made to silence: Silent Night, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (“the world in solemn stillness lay…”), and The First Noel (“on a cold winter’s night that was so deep”) are but a few. Then there’s the popular poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, which is a tradition for many families to read during the run-up to Christmas: “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse….” Something thrills in the human soul when it encounters that silence, which is what makes it so compelling as part of the Christmas celebration.
Have you ever stepped outside at night after a fresh snowfall and simply listened? There’s a silence that descends in the aftermath of that event. One of my favorite things to do every year on Christmas Eve is to step out of my house, away from the hustle and bustle, and listen to the silence. It’s not a mere absence of sound, in the way that one would expect silence right before a storm or in a house where everyone has gone to bed. This kind of silence is a thing, an actual presence that we can sense. It doesn’t even need to be described, it’s instantly known to anyone who encounters it. There’s something beautiful and awe-inspiring about this.
Why Does It Appeal to Us?
In Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the 46th World Communications Day in 2012, the Holy Father talked about the importance of silence in communication with God and others. He pointed out that in today’s world, questions are largely asked in search of answers. How often do we have conversations with people where we’re really taking their response into our hearts, as opposed to merely listening to respond? Are we looking for depth in those conversations, or are we doing a call-and-response form of talking? Our conversations are filled with so much noise that we don’t leave room for anything else. This, according to Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict, is at the root of a spirit of restlessness that exists in the human condition. We desire truth, but we’re never able to grasp it fully with the way modern communication unfolds. What quiets that restlessness and brings us to a greater sense of fulfillment? Silence.
We don’t have to go far to find examples in our own lives of the power of silence. Think of a married couple with small children in the house, in the moments they have together after the children have gone to bed. Many of them will tell you that they spend the first little bit of time together enjoying the quiet. No children asking endless streams of questions, no boisterous noise, no chaos…absolute silence. The parents I know who speak of this experience do so with a sense of satisfaction (and occasionally longing, in the case of those parents with their hands full with lots of small children). Why? Because they see the true value of the silence.
I can call up another example from my own life. I have a relative who is autistic. Autistic people deal with sensory overload on a constant basis. Their five senses are razor-sharp, so they hear and see everything; it’s their body’s way of compensating for being unable to connect their thoughts to outward communication and control of other parts of their body. My relative will frequently engage in what he calls “resting his brain.” What that means is he’s immersing himself in a quiet environment where he does nothing. He cuts himself off from sound, from sight, and from smell in a room somewhere, and simply exists in the space. To him, it’s the mental equivalent of sitting a tired, aching body down in a chair for the first time after being on one’s feet all day.
Those examples are two of a countless number. What is clear is this: silence is peace. And peace is a gift.
How Do We Accept Silence as a Gift?
We have written other articles on this site about finding moments of silence, such as “Why We Should Pray Before Bed,” “How to Develop the Habit of Mental Prayer,” and “Why We Need Silence—4 Lessons from the Life of St. Joseph.” Here, though, I want to focus on how we accept the gift of silence rather than on how we might create more opportunities for it. We can do this in four ways.
The first way we can accept the gift of silence is not letting the opportunities for silence pass us by. One of the wonderful things about this time of year is that there is a lot of beautiful imagery to hold our attention. Sit in front of a Christmas tree with the Christmas lights on and no other lights in the room. Look at the tree and think about the marvelous act of the Incarnation, and just rejoice quietly in your heart that God loves us so much that we have this reason to celebrate. Bask in that joy in front of the tree. Or maybe you have a lovely little creche/manger scene in your home somewhere; that works just as well.
The second way we can accept this gift is to show the gift to other people. Be intentional in your conversations with other people. Think about the relationships you have in your life, and reflect on recent conversations with these people. Who did most of the talking? If it was you, is it because your companion is introverted, or can you think of times where maybe the conversation felt like it was running long? Did you give yourself opportunities to take breaths and let the other person weigh in, or were you holding court?
The third is to take opportunities where there are “lulls” in the activity at holiday time, and use them as little sanctifying moments. Maybe you find yourself alone at a Christmas party for a few minutes. Maybe everyone else has run out to do last-minute Christmas shopping. Step outside as darkness falls, and do nothing more than listen. Especially during this time of year when the sun goes down, it becomes very quiet from the cold. All of creation lies in stillness at nighttime, and our faith tradition holds that Jesus came to Earth in the deep stillness of night. Use that outdoor silence as an opportunity to reflect on the stillness of the Earth as the Savior came to us.
Fourth and last, train your heart in those moments of silence. When silence comes, where are our thoughts? Are we thinking about that moment of stillness as a gift, or are we worried about the next thing we need to do? If we’re preoccupied with what comes next, we rush out of the gift of that moment of silence and fail to grow in grace. That growth is the entire purpose of that moment!
May the gift of silence resonate as great a joy in your heart this Christmas season as it did on that cold, beautiful night two thousand years ago.
Vir’s heart has been on fire for the Church from day one, and he dreams of the day when Constantinople will be a city again. He has a competitive drive satiated by sports and board games, but is also just as happy to sit down and read a good book for hours on end.