||This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.
The Book of Wisdom, Chapter 18, verse 14 says, “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, Your all powerful word leapt from heaven, from the royal throne.”
It is a beautiful prophecy of the night of our Lord’s Birth. That’s why it’s the introit from the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas and it is a biblical reference, along with others, which give context to the beautiful Christmas hymn, “Silent Night.” Silence is part of the essential clothing, if you will, of Christmas.
The power of silence
Robert Cardinal Sarah, the Prefect for Divine Worship, has written a beautiful new book about the power of silence. Unfortunately, it is only available in French for now.
Cardinal Sarah says that silence is like a veil that hides what is mysterious. He also says silence is like an icon screen in the Eastern Rite, again, that conceals what is holy. So, silence should be incorporated and welcomed into our lives and especially into the liturgy.
When we encounter it, we should allow silence to be and not treat it like a nervous pause after Communion. You know, when the priest is sitting there and the people don’t really know what he’s doing, and they are nervously thinking that they won’t make it to brunch before the big crowd, because Father is just sitting there. . . . Clearly, I love brunch as much as anyone, but we must embrace silence in our liturgies and in our lives!
Silence essential to the liturgy
Silence is the veil which covers mystery, the veil which covers the truth that cannot be put into words; it is the icon screen that conceals the Holy of Holies. So, silence is essential to the liturgy. And sometimes people in our culture react so poorly to silence — they just want it to be over.
Because of that, the priests cooperate, and they don’t allow themselves or others silence. But only if we deal with the mysteries as veiled, can they be unveiled, and if we are not striving to encounter mystery at the liturgy, we are missing the point of what God is doing in our lives.
So of course, Christmas night had to be a night when gentle silence accompanied and enveloped everything. It had to be a silent night. Because, the greatest mystery that God has gifted the human race with, was unveiled that night.
As an aside, that’s why veils have traditionally been so important in the Church. Chalice veils and tabernacle veils were used because they shrouded the mystery of Christ present in the form of bread and wine. It is one of the greatest mysteries which remain with us — Christ fully present, body, blood, soul, and divinity.
I don’t even know how we lost veils. I just woke up one morning and they were gone. And this goes for women wearing veils in Church, too. The reason for this is to acknowledge that the woman, in that she is the one in whom new life, new creation, comes to be, is a mystery. In their being, women are oriented to being mother of the mystery of life, and that veil speaks to the sacredness of the mystery which she is. Not only is a veil not a put-down of women, it’s an exultation of women. Where did that all go?
Lost appreciation for silence
I think that somewhere around the same time we lost the appreciation for other veils, we lost appreciation for the veil that is silence. And of course silence is gone. When walking down the sidewalk, I sometimes still can’t believe that I’m the only one who doesn’t have something in his ears. We cannot bear silence. It’s a world of noise. It’s a world of no veils. It’s a world that downplays mystery of any sort.
I would offer that in order to appreciate mystery, there have to be veils and especially the veil of silence. “When gentle silence encompassed everything and the night was half spent, Your all-powerful word, oh, Lord, leapt down from heaven’s royal throne!”
Make Christmas a ‘silent night’
Maybe we could all do something this year to make of Christmas a “silent night,” where the mystery could blossom forth from behind that veil of silence. What mystery? The mystery of course, of the Word made flesh; the mystery of God present in a babe in a manger. And this unites us to the mystery of our Salvation. Because in taking human flesh, Christ took upon Himself the destiny of a human death. His taking flesh was a priestly, sacrificial act which led Him to the Cross.
Christmas is a feast of God-with-us in human form. Christmas is a feast of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. All of that mystery needs to be unveiled, and that takes time. So, I would encourage us not to begrudge the time during the Mass given over to silence. It’s time for revelation. It’s for the appearance of what is behind the veil of silence.
And I hope that in our families and with others, we might take the opportunity, when people are listening to “Silent Night” to say, “You know, that ‘silent night’ is not just poetic sentiment. It’s much deeper than that.”
And you might give a little catechesis about silence in such a noisy world. And during this Christmas season, let’s take some time for silence and encourage and teach our family and others to do so. Spend time in silence, contemplating the mysteries before us and encounter the beauty of Christmas in a wonderful way.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope and pray that this Christmas is filled with grace and blessings for you and your loved ones! Praised be Jesus Christ!