Searching for Peace in the Not-So-Silent-Night

My dad typically only wore his suit jacket to church twice a year – on Easter and Christmas. On those two days, my younger sister and I would always be sure to sit on either side of him.

Candy Canes by WELS.netJust like Frosty’s hat, there must have been some magic in those suit jacket pockets, for at Easter they were filled with black jelly beans and at Christmas – miniature candy canes.

All throughout the services, my dad would share his contraband secretly, quietly with my giggling sister and I. All of this happened under the watchful, corrective look from my mom. I know that look well – I use it frequently myself today – especially at church.

The biggest problem with the Christmas contraband was that it was noisy. No matter how careful you were, removing the plastic wrapper from a candy cane was a noisy endeavor.

All the candy passing, giggling and wrapper rustling would dramatically and expectantly cease at the close of the service, however. As the lights were dimmed and the light of Christmas – the light of the world – was symbolically passed – candle to candle, person to person – a reverent and holy hush descended peacefully on all. As the church filled with flickering candlelight, the familiar refrain of Silent Night began.

This was Christmas to me. The stained glass windows illuminated by candles. The dark, cold night pierced with the chorus of voices singing all six verses of Silent Night. And without fail, I was overcome with tears – caught up in the beauty, the peace, the joy, the hope of the promised fulfilled, making a way for me to be part of God’s people.Silent Night by Jason Short

I hated those tears. They fell faster than I could discreetly wipe them away. In that moment, I wished my dad’s magic pockets contained kleenex rather than candy. No matter how I tried to distract myself by singing the German lyrics or recalling the silly rustling candy wrappers, nothing could deter the emotion that welled up inside.

Now that I’m older – and perhaps wiser – I’ve been thinking about my favorite Christmas carols and what they actually say to us theologically and spiritually.

I’ve been struck by the great disconnect between the words of Silent Night and the reality of my life – maybe you can relate.

This week has been anything but silent. Challenges with one of our kids that has resulted in dramatic outbursts of anger and notes sent home from school. Busyness of end-of-semester grading and projects that come with being both a grad student and adjunct faculty have resulted in late nights and early mornings.  Even the Christmas jazz concert we attended felt more chaotic and unresolved than calming and silent.

But I know I’m not alone. The Christmas season, rather than being peacefully silent is often a time of depression, loneliness and grief for many. Individuals who are without family, away from family, or dreading a season without a special loved one who has passed ask, “Where is the blessed silence that’s filled with joy and peace?” 

I imagine you too have wondered, “Where is the beauty and the hope of a silent night?”

As I reflect on that first night of Jesus’ human life, I really don’t think it was all that silent and peaceful. The throngs of people gathered in the small town for the census. The animals that shared Mary and Joseph’s temporary shelter. The cries of Mary’s birth pangs. The angels singing in the skies above. The muttering of the rough-and-tumble shepherds curiously coming to see that which the angels sang about.

No – Jesus’ entry into the world was far from peaceful and silent. And the noisy, chaotic, busy realities of life and ministry continued – causing Jesus to constantly pull away and seek silent times of prayer with his Father.

Even his final night before his crucifixion was filled with his anguished praying, disciples’ snoring, the charging mobs and painful cries from one who had his ear cut-off. Where was the silent night filled with peace?

A gentle breeze by rogiro

I’ve spent some time this week reading and reflecting on the passages in scripture that refer to silence. What strikes me is that silence is commanded and interrupted in exact opposite ways to what we may expect.

When heading into confrontation with Egypt, the Israelites are told to stand silent, for the Lord would fight. The Old Testament prophet Zechariah tells the people to be silent before the Lord and his holiness. And the priest Zechariah – the father of John the Baptizer – is made silent – unable to share God’s miraculous words because of his unbelief.

And yet, Esther and Paul are roused to speak – even in the face of fear and threat. And Jesus declared that if people remained silent in their praise of him – then the rocks would interrupt the silence with their declarations.

So silence and speech, quiet and sound are contrary to what the world would consider natural and expected. Being contrary to expectations…that sounds a lot like God – breaking into our lives in often unexpected, surprising ways. Interrupting the chaos and busyness with his whispered reassurances of hope and peace.

I can’t help but to think of Elijah, sitting atop the mountain experiencing a roaring wind – a powerful earthquake – and a consuming fire. And yet, not finding God in any. It was only when God whispered – almost silently – in a low voice and made himself known – that Elijah found God.

Our lives are also filled with roaring winds, powerful earthquakes and consuming fires – they just go by different names these days. Grueling meetings, medical test results, challenging relationships, overbooked schedules, unpaid bills and unexpected disasters. And yet in the midst of all that – God is whispering, almost silently, in a low voice to us – to you, to me.

He’s making himself known and present in the midst of everything that isn’t silent, peaceful, joyful, beautiful and calm.

You see, there never was a silent night. Even the holy hush in that Methodist church of my childhood long ago was interrupted by a crying baby, sickly cough, deep sighs of loneliness and probably rustling candy cane wrappers.

After all, it isn’t really the silent – calm – peaceful night where we’ll truly hear from Christ – it’s the chaotic moments we pause and listen carefully enough to hear his whisper. And it’s his presence in those busy chaotic nights, when we can truly know that all is calm and all is bright.