From the First Book of Kings:
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him . . . .
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Kings 19:11-13 (NRSV) – January 3, 2014.)
It’s almost over . . . nine ballerinas or lady ballroom champions or something are supposed to show up to join the eight milkmaids who came yesterday; then, ten leaping lords are to show up tomorrow. I’m not sure why the dancers are scheduled to get here before the musicians, but the pipers and the drummers won’t get here until the end. In any event, the familiar carol promises that the end of Christmas will be even more noisy and confusing than its beginning.
Thinking of Elijah standing at the mouth of his cave through all the turbulence of storm and temblor and conflagration, but not perceiving God until the “sound of sheer silence,” I am reminded again of how odd I find our (basically) northern European fantasies of the birth of Jesus to be. I sometimes wonder what “first world” Christianity would be like if we’d never developed the notion that the Savior was born on a quiet, snowy night.
We did, though, and church congregations play that up in spades! And, I must confess, my own parish and our liturgical planning for Christmas Eve and the Christ Mass of Christmas Day went right along.
At the Midnight Mass, as a sequence hymn, we sang O Little Town of Bethlehem with that line, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . . .” The Choir sang an anthem version of the Christina Rossetti — Gustav Holst hymn In the Bleak Midwinter with its gorgeous portrayal of a dark winter night:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
And we finished off with the lights dimmed, the candles flickering, and everyone singing Silent Night! We bought right into it! More than likely it’s completely wrong, but we did it anyway.
I think passages like this story of Elijah encourage us to envision the Nativity of Jesus as this peaceful, very-quiet-if-not-silent, nighttime event; this story and others make dark silence the normative setting for God’s interaction with humans. There’s Samuel’s late night call from God (1 Sam. 3:1-18). There are the Josephs (Jacob’s son and Jesus’ foster father) who both received dream messages while sleeping (Gen. 37:5-10; Matt. 1:18-25). There is Jacob who encountered God at night at Peniel, although wrestling with God through the night could hardly have been a silent affair (Gen. 32:24-30).
We’re also fooled by the Magi being led by a star. “There’s a star? Must have been at night,” we think, but the Magi were astrologers whose lives and actions, not just their travel plans, were “led” by the stars and constellations regardless of the time of day (Matt. 2:1-12). (Let’s not even mention the fact that the wholesale slaughter of the Holy Innocents suggests that their visit was several months, if not a couple of years, later so the star is completely irrelevant to Jesus’ actual birth!) And we’re told by Luke that shepherds were in the area keeping watch over the flocks “by night” when the angel told them of the birth, but the angel’s message is, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-20, emphasis added) Couldn’t the birth have been earlier? During daylight hours, perhaps? To be honest, there is just no indication when the actual birth of Jesus took place.
And that “when” is bigger than time of day! There’s no indication of what time of year, either. As we all know (since the anti-religious crowd loves to tell us every year, just in case we don’t already know or had forgotten since they told us last year), the December 25 date of Christmas was originally the Roman feast of Saturnalia simply taken over by the church. When someone tries to disprove the Christian story by telling me this, my standard response is “So what?” We don’t celebrate the birthday of Jesus; we celebrate the birth of Christ, the Incarnation of God. We can and do that all the time; it doesn’t matter what day of the year we choose to do so in a particular and special way.
Except that we get this cold, bleak, quiet, silent, peaceful, midwinter, snow-on-snow, everyone-bundle-up northern European picture of Jesus’ birth.
I’ve attended births; I was present when both our children were born in the comfort of hospital birthing centers. Neither was quiet, silent, or peaceful! There was panting, grunting, crying, exclamations, excited utterances, anxiety, frustration, elation . . . and my wife was making noise, too! I can’t imagine that the biblical delivery in a stable would have been any less raucous! I’d be surprised if, with the farm animals provoked by all the goings on, Joseph excited, and Mary in the throes of childbirth (and possibly the owner of the stable and members of his family coming and going), it wasn’t a very noisy place!
I am thoroughly convinced that God was present in all the fuss and noise of my children’s births, so I am just as sure that God was present in all the fuss and noise of God’s own Son’s birth! I am pretty certain that God is present in the fuss and noise of all human affairs. So I would not be surprised, therefore, if the Deuteronomic historian responsible for redacting the First Book of Kings and recording this story of Elijah in the cave was just wrong. Perhaps it would have been accurate to say that Elijah did not perceive God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but I think it is simply inaccurate to say that “the Lord was not in” any or all of those. God is with us in all the noisy, chaotic disorderliness of life.
I don’t have a clue what the Christian faith would be like if it were grounded by a more realistic narrative of Jesus’ birth, but I do know that God is there in the midst of turmoil, in the midst of chaos, in all the cacophony of human existence. That’s the truth the Christian faith teaches. So bring on the dancing ladies, the leaping lords, the pipers, and the drummers! Enough of this sheer silence! God’s twelve-day party is nearly over; let’s make the most of it!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.