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Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.”  On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.

8. Silence

Christmas features the annual collision of two deeply rooted cultural sentiments: silence and celebration.

Silence abounds in numerous carols – from “all is calm, all is bright” (Silent Night), to “above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by” (O Little Town of Bethlehem), to “the world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing” (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear). 

Celebration, on the other hand, overwhelms our senses in TV commercials, holiday parties, and that CD playing in the background all December at Target – the one that features Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Deck the Halls. 

In the original narratives of Jesus’ birth, silence and humility seem to prevail – a powerful invitation to turn down the noise in our own lives.

That includes resisting the temptation to make comments and express our opinions about whatever subject happens to come up – a lesson I learned 40 years ago, and which I relive every time the Christmas decorations come out of our closet.    

Mary Sue and I were at our small group meeting, a gathering of five couples who had chosen to “do life” together for a stretch of years.  It was early December and we were making small talk before we got to the Bible study portion of our evening.

Somehow the subject of Santa Claus came up.  We were all parents of young children, and I knew that the Santa Issue was of some importance to each household.  How should we navigate the rapids of the Jolly Old Elf vs. God’s Gift of Jesus at Christmas?

As a pastor I regularly received what can only be described as ecclesiastical junk mail.  A day or so before our small group meeting I had picked up a glossy brochure advertising a mass-produced painted sculpture.  I decided to flaunt my theological erudition to the group as I spoke dismissively of what I had seen:  Santa, on one knee, holding his cap over his heart, kneeling before the manger with the baby Jesus lying inside. 

It seemed, in my view, to be such a schmaltzy solution to the historical entanglement of Christ and Saint Nick.  I rolled my eyes as I recounted the caption in the brochure: “See Santa where he belongs…on his knees before the King of Kings.”  To me, such sentimental kitsch was designed for the sole purpose of helping some starving artist make money.

As I finished my rant, I noticed that one of the other wives was staring at me.  She said softly, “We happen to have one of those sculptures.  Every year it goes up on our mantel.  In fact, it’s one of the Christmas decorations we cherish the most.”

Let’s see:  Is it possible for a grown man to make himself the size of a ripe olive and roll out of sight under the couch?  I was stricken with embarrassment for the rest of the evening.  And the fact that I can still recall the depth of my discomfort indicates that this lesson became Item #1 in my Very Smart File:  Talk less and you will generally get into far less trouble.

That’s something the book of Proverbs practically shouts: “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18).  “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (17:28).  Amen to that.

For those of us who have fairly fallen in love with the sound of our own voices, and who believe that our opinions deserve the widest possible hearing, learning to speak less is a monumental challenge.  But saying fewer words has amazing practical benefits.

Primarily, quietness allows us to listen.  We can listen to what others are actually saying.  We can surrender the intolerable burdens of trying to form our response to everything that is said, and then finding just the right pause in the conversation to insert our contributions.  Quietness is often louder than speech.  How much better it is to be asked our understanding of something than to pour out our thoughts at every possible moment.  

Maintaining silence means we don’t have to defend ourselves when we feel misunderstood, and don’t have to work overtime to impress others.  Such matters are in God’s hands – if only we quietly trust him.  Speaking less is a great place to start.

Twelve months after that small group meeting, the ten of us decided to secretly draw one other group member’s name and buy them a special Christmas gift.  The answers to your next two questions are Yes and Yes.  That other mom did indeed draw my name.  And at our small group Christmas party I did indeed unwrap my very own statue of Santa kneeling at the manger. 

The laughter was loud, long, and richly deserved.   

Where is the silence in the Bible’s Christmas narratives?

Zechariah the aged priest, staggered by the angel Gabriel’s prediction that he at long last is about to become a father, loses the power to speak for nine months: “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time” (Luke 1:20).  In all of his scenes, Joseph never utters a word.  He embodies the gift of silent strength.  And Mary, after hearing about the shepherds’ nighttime encounter with angels, “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  She quietly processes the events that have changed her life – and the world – forever.   

The world is noisy.  It is good to be quiet.  We can hear things in the silence that we can hear no other way. 

Best of all, we can actually hear each other if we choose to speak less.

As for me, I have proof that it’s possible to insert your entire foot into your mouth and live to tell the story. 

And I love the statue of Santa that is still, four decades later, part of our Christmas decorations.