A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 24, 2012.
There’s a quietness that envelopes the land just about this time every Christmas Eve. How does the song go? “There’s a quiet hush all over the world tonight…” Granted, it’s something of a rock song and not a Christmas carol, but it fits, doesn’t it? When the sun goes down on Christmas Eve, the noise of the day sets with it. In fact, it’s probably the quietest night of the year.
Most of the stores are closed, and even the television programming refrains from the usual shoot-em-ups and crime scene investigations with their too-authentic and gory autopsy scenes… not that anyone watches TV on Christmas Eve, unless it’s a rerun of It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, there is a sense in which this really is a quiet, if not silent, night.
I have a theory about that. It could be because we’ve just passed the winter solstice when the dark hours are longer than any other time of year. Not only that, we have turned down the lights and lit the candles. When a place is brightly-lit, it invites noise and celebration, maybe even dancing. Well… not here, but other places, I suppose. Turn down the lights, however, and it calls for a hush, an intimacy that everyone seeks – yea craves – on this holy and special occasion. When people speak, it’s almost in a whisper. That may be part of it.
Christmas Eve is a time for reflection… finally. Most of our Advent and Christmas season is filled with activity and noise, parties and music that don’t exactly make for quiet moments. It’s hard to reflect on the true meaning of the season with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” blaring in the background… or anything sung by Mariah Carey, if you know what I mean.
You may be finding yourself being quiet tonight out of sheer fatigue. Maybe you travelers, who have come from other parts of the world to be with your loved ones here, are bone-tired from the exertion of it all. This may be your first opportunity to sit still for a moment, and it’s such a welcome relief you simply want to savor it for a moment and not worry about details and schedules and where you have to be next. Christmas Eve was just made for being quiet.
Speaking of traveling at Christmas… Michael Bennett suggests it’s good that this story of Mary and Joseph wasn’t played out in modern times. Imagine Mary, he says, “prying her shoes from her pregnancy-swollen feet to accommodate the X-ray operator. Joseph reluctantly discards the baby oil and Mary’s favorite hand lotion he had thoughtfully packed for the trip”1 (more than three ounces, don’t you know!). Sometimes, fatigue leads to silence, doesn’t it?
Or you might be in grief, and when grief comes your way it’s hard to say anything. For our guests tonight, when you leave you might notice the white framed building across the street. It belongs to our church. We call it the Fields Centre. It is there that we host families who are here from out of town and are receiving treatment at one of our local medical facilities. Right now, we’re hosting a family from the Harrison area whose baby had major eye surgery this morning.
Some of you may recall the Christmas Eve service of three or four years ago when a woman and her two sons attended our candlelight service. From Virginia, they were staying in the Fields Centre, and earlier that day, on Christmas Eve, her husband and their father died from the effects of multiple myeloma. When I spoke to them following the service, they were, of course, subdued and quiet… yet, they were grateful for our church’s ministry toward them, and because they are people of faith they were even more grateful for God’s abundant grace made evident to them.
Losing a loved one at Christmas time is especially difficult, or dealing with the fact that this is your first Christmas without someone who has been significant in your life. It could be that each of us is finding our Christmas this year to be a bit quieter because we grieve for the families in Newtown, Connecticut who a few days ago lost their little ones.
Or, it could be the realization that anything that can be said about Christmas has been said, so we simply shut up now in order to enjoy and take in the moment. The shopping, the parties, the canned music over the intercom – what we call the hustle and bustle – it’s all over, thank goodness.
But I think there’s something else, something very important. It’s that in the quietness, if not the silence of Christmas Eve, we wait in anticipation’s last few moments for Christ to come. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to lean over and look into the face of a newborn child, as we did just Thursday night when we celebrated with the Lee family the birth of Eleanor Rosa, you know that if you speak at all it is in very quiet, hushed tones. Not only is the baby quite possibly asleep, but that moment – that tender, precious moment – simply inspires one to be quiet.
The title of tonight’s meditation, “Silence,” does not imply that it really was a silent night when Christ was born. In truth, it was a birth like any other birth, and to suggest otherwise is an injustice to these simple peasant people who had to endure the difficulty of it.
I’ve been told that childbirth is not a quiet affair. Wouldn’t know personally. Both my children came into the world back in the day when dads weren’t allowed in the delivery room.
I said “delivery” room, didn’t I? That’s become something of a throwback. With the proliferation of UPS and FedEx, not to mention Amazon.com, I think they now call them birthing rooms (leave the deliveries to those who drop packages on your front doorstep). But whatever you call it, I, like many of you, didn’t get to be there – at least not in that room – to witness the birth of my children. But I’ve been told it can get pretty noisy in there. It is not my practice to take issue with hymns, much less scripture, but I’m not so sure Phillips Brooks got it right when he wrote, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!”
Or maybe the silence so many people talk about in regard to Christmas has to do with the fact that Jesus’ birth made little, if any, splash in the world. Nobody took notice of it, not when it happened. There were no headlines proclaiming the birth of the Messiah, no celebrations in the street, no noise whatsoever. As far as the world was concerned, nothing of any significance at all happened. And nothingness is silent.
We are told that a few shepherds heard about it, quite dramatically even. And then there were the Magi some time later. But still, if it had not been for the stories recorded in the New Testament gospels, would we, you and I, have ever heard of it?
I don’t know if it really happened, but it should have, and the story is told as if it truly occurred. One cold February morning in 1809, down Kentucky way, a man on horseback came into the small settlement of Hodgenville. He stopped at the store to warm himself by the fire, and while he was there asked the shopkeep if there was any news thereabouts. No, nothing going on, he was told. “But I did hear that Mrs. Lincoln had a baby boy this morning.”
Anything going on down Bethlehem way? “Nah, nothing ever happens in Bethlehem. Heard there was a baby born… something about them having to use a stable and putting the baby in the animals’ feed trough.”
That reminds me of the vacationers who asked their tour guide if anyone famous has been born in the town they were visiting. “No,” they were told, “just babies.” That’s the way it was in Bethlehem. It was “simply the unexceptional birth of another child to poor parents in a small, crowded backwater town…”2 “Anybody famous born in Bethlehem?” “Nah, just babies.”
There’s another reason that Christmas Eve is a quiet, if not silent, time. It has to do with the fact that the night Jesus was born, time stopped. It just plain stopped… and then it turned on its axis and has never since been the same. The Mayans may have missed it Friday, but when God came in human flesh on that first Christmas, the world moved in a different direction… not that the world noticed. Not then anyway. But now, we date our calendar by this birth. And ever since, on every Christmas Eve, time just seems to stop… for each of us, maybe for different reasons.
But I’m convinced that Christmas is silent because we do not serve a loud God, one who demands that we let him into our lives. God comes to us persistently, knocking quietly on the door of our hearts, asking us to let him in. But God doesn’t demand it, certainly not at the top of his voice, even at Christmas time. Yet, I would encourage you on this Christmas Eve to listen for that still, small – maybe even silent – voice that beckons you to come and give your heart to the One whose birth we celebrate.
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!” Hmm. Maybe Phillips Brooks was right after all.
Come silently into our hearts, O Lord, we pray. In the name of the One whose birth we anticipate, Jesus our Lord, Amen.
1Michael S. Bennett, Feasting On the Word, Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) p. 118.
2Charles L. Campbell, Feasting On the Word, Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) p. , p. 121.