Have you ever thought about the radical changes that occur in silence? When you plant a hard little brown jonquil bulb in cold November soil it makes no sound as it sits there for weeks. As it breaks through the ground in February there’s no big shout of freedom. It pops up and, miraculously, turns into a lovely flower. A butterfly in its cocoon is perfectly quiet and makes no fireworks when it explodes into colorful motion. There’s an awesome silence sometimes before a great storm.
There was a silence of four hundred years between the time that God’s last prophet spoke and the time when Jesus, Savior and Redeemer, broke through as a helpless baby one night in Bethlehem.
On Christmas Eve–after every stocking is hung, after every gift is wrapped, after the pies are baked and everyone is asleep–if you’re still awake you can hear the silence. It’s the silence of memory, the silence of reality, of things that have happened and events still to come. It may just be you, the Christmas tree, and a blanket to huddle in as you consider the silence that turned into a joyful song.
Put yourself out on a Judean hillside on a cold starry night watching your sheep. Other shepherds are there, too, caring for their ewes, rams, and lambs. You take turns sleeping perhaps, leaving one on watch. It’s your turn to be that one. You stir the low fire and huddle around it. You grip your shepherd’s staff and pound it into the hard ground just keeping yourself awake. You look up at the millions of stars and think how very quiet it is out there–only the tiniest little sound of shifting coals in the fire and then a whimper of a little lamb nuzzling its mama.
Suddenly–the sky explodes with light so bright you shield your eyes. All the other shepherds are awake now cringing from the light, trembling with the shock of this sudden change. And then the angel–talking to all of you (you’ve never before seen an angel, but somehow you know this unbelievably bright figure is an angel). The angel says: “Don’t be afraid. I’m bringing you good tidings of great joy for you and everyone.” What is he talking about? Who is this?
“Today in the city of David is born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. You will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.”
What? Can this possibly be…? Is this about the promised Messiah we’ve heard about all our lives?
And then–out there where it’s been so quiet all your whole life–the sky is filled with many angels, a host of angels, singing (or saying), “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men.”
You stare up at them overwhelmed by the light, the brilliant colors, the sounds, particularly the sounds. The sounds of the voices and the rustle of angels’ wings and then music, indescribable music, simply overcome you. You cannot breathe but it doesn’t matter. You don’t need breath. You want to listen from now on and on forever.
And then they leave. It’s quiet again. Except now it’s not so quiet because your sheep are all awake nudging and milling around from the great excitement. And the shepherds begin to come out of their shock and babble at each other unable at first to comprehend what has happened.
Shall we go? We must go! Yes! Let’s not delay.
You don’t want to waste a single minute. Hurriedly, one shepherd is chosen to stay with the sheep and you’re so relieved you weren’t picked. You suddenly become aware that you’re still gripping your staff and you move forward heading into Bethlehem, your heart pounding with unexplainable fear and ecstasy.
The silence now is broken by the quick footsteps of you and all the shepherds.
The angel’s directions seemed kind of vague: “wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger…” How? Where? But somehow you all know exactly where to go and there, sure enough, in a stable, is a young mother hovering over a newborn babe lying in a manger.
You fall to your knees without even thinking. This is not just a baby. You know in your fast beating heart this is the Messiah. What do you say? You feel light pouring around you. It’s as if the darkness of all the ages is dispelled. Mary and Joseph are smiling down on you as you look up. They understand, at least they seem to. You know you’re mumbling something and you’re not sure it makes sense but as you gaze into the Babe’s tiny face His eyes actually open and you feel a gentle power emanating from that tiny form.
You and all the shepherds leave the stable in the greatest excitement. You know you will never be the same again. Everything is different now, the stars, the dark hills, the humble dwellings that you pass.
The silence is broken and you know you will be telling everyone you meet for the rest of your life about that night in Bethlehem. You will hurry back now to your sheep and tell that shepherd who had to stay behind.
Consider the silence–consider the song!
“And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they had heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”