The Silent Night of Bethlehem


“Silent Night” has never been one of my favorite Christmas carols, but this year I think I’ve changed my tune. I’ve been meditating on silence this Advent, ever since I started reading “The Power of Silence” by Robert Cardinal Sarah.

Ironically, Mary and Joseph were not surrounded by family members on the night Christ was born.  Here they were in a foreign town because of Joseph’s family lineage, but there was no place to stay with relatives or even other human beings. The only witnesses of Jesus’ entrance into the world were probably some animals, and a silent Joseph who never utters a single word in Scripture.  There was no royal parade, crowds cheering, or even a midwife to help deliver this child. And yet, that was the way God planned it.

“The silent incarnation of the Word in the crib in Bethlehem.” This phrase struck me as I read it in Cardinal Sarah’s book.  For thousands of years, the prophets had been announcing the coming of a savior. But for the centuries leading up to the Incarnation, the prophets were silent. Then, in an unassuming stable one silent night, the world changed forever. God had come to man in silence. And it’s only in silence that we encounter God.

“Silence is mystery; and the greatest mystery, God, remains silent,” writes Cardinal Sarah in his book. I have always felt the circumstances surrounding the humble beginnings of the nativity to be a mystery. But as I meditate on this mystery in silence, I am confronted with the depths of God himself. And as I am immersed in the mystery, I am filled with God’s presence and know his love for me.

“The word is not just a sound; it is a person and a presence. God is the eternal Word, the Logos.  St. John of the Cross: “The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must It be heard by the soul.” (Power of Silence 7)

Amid the parties and festivities of the holidays, we must withdraw to hear the voice of God, because God’s voice is silent. I can’t count the number of times someone has told me that they can’t hear God: Why doesn’t he just show up in fireworks or a loud booming voice from heaven? Why isn’t God speaking to the world like he did in the Bible? How do I even know he’s there? Why doesn’t he just give me a clear sign? Why can’t I hear him?

In the Bible, God sometimes spoke through angels. He spoke in dreams. And with some of the prophets, he spoke more directly. But the prophet was one who was different than others – he dwelt in solitude and silence to clearly hear what God was saying and communicate it to Israel. “No prophet ever encountered God without withdrawing into solitude and silence,” writes Cardinal Sarah.

As baptized Catholics, we are priest, prophet, and king. We live a sacramental existence in which our very bodies and all that we do are to proclaim the greatness of God’s love and mercy. And if we can’t recall one profound encounter of Christ speaking to us, that’s a huge problem.

“It is necessary to leave our interior turmoil in order to find God. Despite the agitations, the busyness, the easy pleasures, God remains silently present. “ (Power of Silence 6)

During our Agape course, we ask our couples if they have ever had a personal encounter with Jesus. Many haven’t, or if they have, it was through a grandparent, a near death experience, or through meeting their future spouse. While I’m not denying the validity of those experiences, I don’t think it’s enough.

“How can man really be in the image of God? He must enter into silence. We encounter God only in the eternal silence in which he abides. Have you ever heard the voice of God as you hear mine? God’s voice is silent.  Unless silence dwells in man, and unless solitude is a state in which he allows himself to be shaped, the creature is deprived of God.” (Power of Silence 1)

“In killing silence, man assassinates God. But who will help man to be quiet? His mobile phone is continually ringing; his fingers and mind are always busy sending messages. . . . Developing a taste for prayer is probably the first and foremost battle of our age.” (Power of Silence 76)

As I wrote in my blog on how to pray, we have to learn to recognize God’s voice among the other noises blaring at us constantly. TV, social media, and electronics are screaming at us to drown out God’s voice.  “Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking, at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing. Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet. It holds forth in an unending monologue.” (Power of Silence 74)

So, if you haven’t been able to hear God’s voice, my question to you is this: Are you taking time each day not just to be quiet and to listen, but to be silent and to encounter God in that silence? Only then will you see Him at work in your life and know He is there.

“At the heart of man there is an innate silence, for God abides in the innermost part of every person. God is silence, and this divine silence dwells in man. Nothing will make us discover God better than his silence inscribed in the center of our being. If we do not cultivate this silence, how can we find God?” (Power of Silence 2,3)

This coming liturgical season of Christmas is a perfect time to practice some silence. From Christmas until the feast of Christ’s Baptism, we can join in with the silence of Bethlehem to meet God in our hearts. Only then can the silence of his presence transform our lives.

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