One of the sweetest Christmases I can remember was in my early teens. At that age, a snow day was still a happy inconvenience, and it felt like a dream to wake up to 6 inches of winter wonderland that Christmas Eve. This was about the same age when Midnight Mass became a great excuse to stay up late the night before Christmas.
Going to Midnight Mass was a privilege only given out to the older kids in the family. I would carefully plan what to wear to church that night, knowing that everyone else would be dressed in their best. My brothers and I would accompany our grandparents to Mass, leaving my parents at home to wrap gifts and prepare for Christmas morning in relative peace. After Mass was over, we delighted in being the first to blurt out “Merry Christmas” to friends as they exited the church.
There was something magical about arriving home to a well-decorated Christmas tree, bulging stockings and the mellow sound of Roger Whittaker singing Christmas lullabies. We’d chatter with my parents about who was at Mass, squeezing a few more minutes out of an already late night. After savouring a mandarin orange and a piece of festive baking, we’d reluctantly slip into bed, Christmas quite real in our dreamy heads.
It’s easy to romanticize these distant memories, but I recall that there was something extra special about this particular Christmas Eve. My family home is situated at the top of a large hill, and when it snows we always get a few more inches than other areas of the city. The snow had continued to fall throughout the day and well into the evening, by which point the streets were covered in a soft pillow that was impossible to drive in. Undeterred, my brothers leapt at the chance to walk in the knee-high drifts to the church, some 2 km away and located on the steep hill. I threw on my boots and joined them at the last moment, somewhat begrudgingly, imagining the wet mess that we’d be by the time we made it to the service, but not wanting to miss out on an adventure.
We marched down the middle of silent streets; lights illuminating everything with a warm glow. Our feet squeaked beneath us and if I recall correctly, snowballs were hurled either to or from the Midnight service. Around us the neighbourhood, devoid of traffic, was silent except for our chatter and squeals. The walk felt daring and any misgivings of being a wet mess melted away as the sweet Christmas silence soaked into my soul.
This year, in March, a similar silence fell over the world. Covid became a pandemic and everything seemed to stop overnight: stores were mostly closed, restaurants shut down, there was no general hum of activity. Less cars patrolled the road as people stopped commuting to work; everyone was staying close to home. Unlike my wintery memory, this silence was less sweet and more like an anxious pause.
My roommate and I began new rhythms such as reading aloud and going for long walks. I didn’t have a car at the time and, being uncomfortable on public transit, I began to walk everywhere. Walking felt safe and I suddenly had all the time in the world to get anywhere since there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.
I was new to the neighbourhood so walking helped me get my bearings. I discovered that one of the most popular parks in East Vancouver, Trout Lake, was only a fifteen minute jaunt from my house. I’d go there to think as I walked; to process what was going on in the world and in my soul.
In a world affected by Covid, these walks provided a silence that made room for authentic dialogue with God.
In my conversations with God I found that I was angry about many things, but was also able to open to beauty and love in new ways. In the protected stillness of my heart, I learned to trust in God’s healing and loving presence. “Silent Night, Holy Night,” begins the traditional Christmas carol. Silence paves the way to holy ground.
When Covid restrictions began to ease, the world seemed to go back to its noisy patterns. I’ve noticed that the noise gets especially amplified on social media. Not everything online is just noise, but it’s a forum where the volume is easily turned up on anyone’s unfiltered opinion. Even in the safety of my own home, it can feel like hundreds of people are yelling at me what to believe through my screen. It can be confusing, disorienting and unsettling.
Of course, there are real things to be concerned about outside our doors, real change to address, and real people who are suffering because of Covid, politics and grave abuses of power. And yet, if I’m going to grapple with any of these things in a decent and thoughtful way, I need to begin with silence. In the silence, we open up space to meet God.
The great Christian writer, C.S.Lewis writes that at Christmas, “God entered into our human condition quietly, as a baby born in obscurity… because He had to slip covertly behind enemy lines.” Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world, himself arrived into our world in a moment of silence, in the dead of night. There was no Instagram post announcing his arrival or its significance. The angels gave him a bit of fanfare, but to shepherds, the general nobodies of their time.
For the next thirty years, Jesus lived a relatively undocumented existence in Nazareth. The Gospel writers are silent about thirty of the thirty-three years of his life.
This might appear odd except that we know Jesus himself loved going away to a quiet place to spend time with his Father. Silence was his source of strength. Therefore these years were not insignificant, but a time of growing in intimacy with his Father in heaven.
He modeled this to us. Likewise, setting aside ten minutes of quiet at the start or end of the day can be a source of strength as we bring our burdens and joys to the Father.
This Christmas, let’s not be afraid of a Silent Night. We don’t need a heavy winter snow to create the right conditions, or a global pandemic to shut us down; we simply need to put away distractions to allow ourselves the delight of welcoming Jesus into our hearts and minds. We are in need of a Saviour and he is on his way. He isn’t asking for an exquisite family dinner or the perfect Christmas tree, he simply wants our hearts.