Carl McColman: Silence: Not Just for the Night Before Christmas


There is a new holiday-themed trailer for next year's Minions movie, a spin-off of the popular Despicable Me films from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment. In the trailer, the adorable minions are shown singing a Christmas carol -- in their own minion-language, of course, but the tune is that of "Silent Night." Only a few seconds go by before one of the characters, decked out in a Santa Claus hat and colorful Christmas sweater (replete with blinking lights), interrupts the diminutive choir and leads them to sing another carol -- still in their distinctive minion-ese -- only now to the tune of "Jingle Bells." It's a subtle message: who needs silence when you could be having fun? And it's not so much about the so-called "war on Christmas" as it is a reminder that we live in a society that would rather be rowdy than reflective.



The minions notwithstanding, "Silent Night" is a much-loved carol, and may be one of the few cultural icons left to us that honors silence. When I was a boy, churches and libraries were reliable places of peace and quiet, but nowadays it seems, at least in my experience, that even those former bastions of noiselessness are filled with chatter and conversation. Silence, it seems, is an endangered quality in our bustling, tech-savvy, hyper-commercialized society. Evangelical Christians and conservative pundits keep insisting that we need to "put Christ back in Christmas" -- but I'm left wondering: if Christmas gets filled with the thumping beat of religious rock 'n' roll and the "silent night" gets drowned in the clamor of our endless array of mobile devices, then it seems to me that far more is at stake here than a Jesus vs. Santa smackdown.

Lest I be written off as just another Scrooge, let me point out that once upon a time, silence and Christmas went together about as naturally as winter and snow. Consider this lovely excerpt from a Christmas sermon preached by a twelfth-century monk, Guerric of Igny:

Truly it is a trustworthy word and deserving of every welcome, your almighty Word, Lord, which in such deep silence made its way down from the Father's royal throne into the mangers of animals and meanwhile speaks to us better by its silence. Let him who has ears to hear, hear what this loving and mysterious silence of the eternal Word speaks to us. For, unless hearing deceives me, among the other things which he speaks he speaks peace for the holy people upon whom reverence for him and his example impose a religious silence. ... For what recommends the discipline of silence with such weight and such authority, what checks the evil of restless tongues and the storms of words, as the Word of God silent in the midst of men? ... If I were allowed to I would gladly be dumb and be brought low, and be silent even from good things, that I might be able the more attentively and diligently to apply my ear to the secret utterances and sacred meaning of this divine silence.

Guerric is saying a lot more here than simply "Christ knows how to be quiet." He's delighting in the paradox that Christ is "the eternal Word" and yet comes to us in silence, a silence that marked not only the nativity, but other key points throughout his life: the forty days in the desert, the regular retreats to mountaintops and other desolate places to pray, and the final vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion. Again and again, Christ embodied silence, as much as he also embodied the words of his teaching, or his acts of healing, or his patient suffering. And if we can find no other reason to admire and emulate this quality of his, Guerric gives us an obvious place to start: when we are silent, we are relieving the world from having to deal with "the evil of restless tongues and the storms of words." And that's true for everyone, no matter what our religious belief or political persuasion might be.

I'm all for keeping Christ in Christmas and remembering the reason for the season. But I sure wish the minions had finished singing "Silent Night" before they cut loose with "Jingle Bells." Likewise, I think everyone who wishes to reflect on the spiritual heart of Christmas -- whether they are a follower of Jesus Christ or not -- would do well simply to foster more silence in their lives. Silence demands no creed, but it reveals blessings that are subtle and cannot be put into words. A friend of mine who is a Disciples of Christ minister is fond of saying "religion divides, but spirituality unites." I'm uncomfortable with the idea that religion and spirituality are opposed to each other, I think that's a false dichotomy that our individualistic culture has invented. But I will say this: words, especially when poorly applied or aggressively used, can and often do divide us, whereas silence, entered humbly and compassionately, may be the best hope for healing such divisions and fostering true unity.

May that unity be available to all of us, this holiday season. And may we all find rest in the silent night.

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