The silence of Christmas

When I think of Christmas - and the exigencies of newspaper publishing compel me to think of it a good deal in advance - I am struck by the fact that I am mostly aware of an immense silence. Of course in the mind's ear there are carols , and the laughter of children, and readings in the old texts; but before these and around these seems to hover a stillness. If I say it is ''an unearthly stillness'' I shall be speaking in very precise and literal terms. For the Christmas story as it comes down to us is full of awesome moments when lack of any motion or noise speaks more eloquently than the pouring out of exuberant chants, and weighs on us more heavily than any amount of action. The child that each day before Christmas opens another window in his decorated calendar, wordlessly and wonderingly, is very much in the season's mood. And when Christmas Eve arrives, it seems that not only this child but the whole of creation is holding its breath to learn what will happen next.

It was not with a shout that the astrologers in Matthew's version of the Christmas story were apprised that some great event portended; it was with something as unutterably silent as the rising of a star. They considered themselves at that time to be on a secret mission for Herod and they moved with stealth through the unpeopled countryside. The star which they had seen in the East ''went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.'' In all literature there is not a passage more charged with an astonishing - I had almost said with an excruciating - stillness. Luke's version tells of the shepherds in the fields, keeping watch, before whom appeared an angel of the Lord: ''and the glory of the Lord shone round about them.'' It was a voiceless splendor, and the shepherds responded with a terror that was likewise mute.

The chief figures in the tale were not garrulous; even the animals, the ox and the ass and perhaps a few chickens, live in our imagination as very quiet beasts and birds. But it is of Mary that we have authentic evidence, and that qualifies her as the most endearingly unloquacious of characters. When the shepherds recounted what had befallen them, everyone was astonished and presumably uttered little cries of amazement. But not Mary: she ''kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.''

That Christmas has become, in our age, a very different affair is too obvious to need stressing. Weeks before its arrival carolers of every variety, alive or canned, pour forth the Christmas hymns. In the elevator of a department store the hurried passengers are subjected to an ironically loud rendering by Muzak of ''Silent Night''; or Phillips Brooks's beautiful poem about the silence in which ''the wondrous gift is given'' is noisily broadcast over the unheeding street. Not all of this is bad, I suppose; I, for one, defend the premature lights and decorations which herald Christmas a month or more before it dawns. A world so much in the dark needs whatever illumination it can get, especially at this season when the sun bids fair to forsake us altogether. And a little sacred music, even if profanely spread about, may light a glow in some heart here or there.

Yet looked at more largely, the noisiness of the contemporary world can only be deplored. I don't mean merely the actual decibels to which passing traffic subjects us, or the undue amplification which in our theaters turns the human voice into a bawling reverberation. I include many more subtle manifestations of our culture which together have the effect of making us seem to exist within a fearful din: for example the clutter that impinges upon us, the nervous haste that rules our conduct, the visual sensations that offend the eyes. ''I can't hear myself think'' is perhaps the most damning of the complaints of modern man; and it is provoked by the whole context of our lives, not alone by strict disturbances of the airwaves.

The worst thing about such a condition of life is that it precludes anything significant from happening. When everything is so loud, nothing is heard above the uproar; and when the whole stage is so crowded and cluttered, no one's arrival or departure is noted. In all ages the significant achievements of art have arisen from the midst of a kind of silence; great music, great poetry, is heard precisely because it is surrounded by a cosmic quiet. Like the angel in the Christmas story, the wonder appears silently, and is silently received, until slowly it penetrates and transforms the human heart.

One thinks of the stillness of Christmas; but one also thinks of an overpowering peal of joy; one thinks of the darkness but also of the most brilliant star that ever led men upon a journey. After the angel had appeared alone before the shepherds there came a great company of the heavenly host. These, far from being silent, sang the praises of God; and their song was the most triumphant that had ever fallen upon men's ears: ''Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.''

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