Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
December 25, 2017
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
“Silent Night, Holy Night… All is calm, all is bright.”
These words begin perhaps the most beloved of all Christmas hymns.
The beautiful simple words seem to express so eloquently
our thoughts and emotions tonight/today.
But have you ever stopped to think about the words?
What they mean, and why we sing them?
In particular, why do we think it was a “silent night”?
After all, there’s really nothing explicit in scripture saying this.
Of course, it was night, and the nighttime is usually quiet,
especially in a remote little village like Bethlehem
—so it makes sense to think it was silent.
But there’s something more than.
The intuitive sense that it just must have been silent.
First of all, because of the awe of the moment
—the wonderment of Mary and Joseph,
the astonishment of the ox and lamb,
the amazed reverence of the angels.
And even more than that, what could they say?
What words could express or explain what had happened?
We still struggle today:
how do you praise God enough or explain what he had done?
God the Son, the creator of the Universe,
took on the nature of one of the things he had created: God became man.
The God the Son, who can hold the whole universe in His hand,
confined Himself to the tiny body of a little baby.
God the Son, who was
exalted, worshiped and adorned by all the angels and holy souls,
became a vulnerable child.
And He did all this so that He could reveal Himself to us,
so that we could know Him,
and know the fullness of truth about Him and about ourselves.
And also, so that He could die a horrible death in atonement for our sins.
And all this, because He loved us so much.
That’s what happened,
but those words and no other words can really capsulize or capture
the ineffable wonder of the reality.
And how do we even begin to understand or know
the depth of the love, thankfulness, and the praise we have,
or should have,
in our hearts,
much less come up with words to express it?
Even the Blessed Mother would have been speechless,
as the miraculous birth unfolded,
and then lovingly holding her little new-born boy in her arms,
yet knowing that this “infant so tender and mild”
was truly her Creator and Savior …
as Scripture tells us:
“And Mary kept all these things,
pondering on them in her heart.:”
And so there is silence.
And we join them in pondering all these things in our hearts.
Silent night, holy night.
Of course, the silence is interrupted from time to time.
Once, by the voice of an angel,
who comes to tell the good news to poor shepherds in the field.
But even the angel struggles to explain,
as all he can manage to say is a few words that are true and profound,
but really only scratch the surface:
“behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy….
For today…a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”
True, but still, so incomplete.
And so he adds:
“you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
Go, look and see for yourselves.
Behold and stand in awe, and you too will be speechless–silent.
And so we join Mary, Joseph, the lambs, the shepherds and the angels
in that silent night.
Quietly gazing on the new born babe’s innocent face,
in the image of the manger or in the mind’s eye of imagination.
And in the silence, hearing Him.
Not with words sounding in our ears, but in inspirations forming in our hearts.
We hear Him say to us:
“Look ‘how I have loved you’… Love me.”
And if we listen closely, we will also hear Him say:
“Greater love has no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
And if we look closely, perhaps we would see His tiny hand
lift from the wood of the manger,
and point forward through the years to the wood of the Cross.
And there at the cross we see the same body of Jesus, only now grown.
Still innocent, but now bloody and scarred.
And beside Him, as she was beside the manger, His Blessed Mother.
And there too was silence, as she pondered all these things in her heart:
God becoming her little baby,
her little baby becoming a man,
all to hang on the cross for the sins of other men.
God so loved the world, that He was born as one of us,
and laid down His life for all of us.
And perhaps we feel, with her, a sword of sorrow slightly touching our hearts,
as she again holds the crucified body of her son in her loving arms,
as she once held His infant body so gently in Bethlehem.
And we stand with His Holy Mother, in silence,
pondering all these things in our hearts.
But then, our moment of silent sorrow is interrupted again
by the sweet cooing of the sweet babe in the manger.
And the pain passes,
as we look once again on the face of the divine child,
and all we see is His love, divine infinite love incarnate.
And our hearts are turned from all the sorrows of this world
to the greatest fruits of love: inexpressible joy and a peace.
And then, suddenly, the silence of the night is broken again,
as almost in frustration at their inexpressible joy
the heavenly angelic hosts burst forth in joyful song.
And so we break our silence too.
But still struggling for words,
we make the words of the angels our own, and join them in singing:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”
…people of good will.
And still struggling for words,
we proceed to recite other ancient prayers,
taken from Scripture,
or written by great saints and doctors of the Church.
And we sing with the most joyful, thoughtful, hymns we can,
[led by the most angelic voices of our choir,]
singing “Christ the Savior is born…”
And the darkness of the silent night is broken as well,
as we read:
“and the glory of the Lord shone around them…,”
and we sing,
“Glories stream from heaven afar,”
And we remember that the Babe born is the light of the world:
“Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace…”
But our most eloquent response continues to be not spoken or sung words,
as important and necessary as they are,
but in the silence of our hearts.
Because all those words are meaningless,
unless they flow forth from that silent heart,
that ponders, adores and loves Jesus.
Silent night, holy night.
It is true, there are lots of words spoken and sung at every Mass,
including this Mass—”Christ-Mass,” Christmas.
But even so, if you notice, there are lots of periods of silence—especially for you.
Even when a song is being sung, especially by the choir,
or even when the priest is praying,
you so often are called to sit there silently, but not inactively.
Instead you silently but actively listen, pray, and ponder
the awesome mysteries laid out before you.
This is especially true at the two most holy parts of every Mass:
during the Eucharistic prayer, and during Holy Communion.
As you kneel in silence during the Eucharistic prayer
you hear the words that, like the angel’s words to the shepherds,
echo in your heart and through all the ages:
“this is my body which will be given up for you.”
And as the bells ring, like the choir of heavenly hosts singing, “Alleluia,”
the priest lifts up the host, and you look on in silent awe
not at some wooden image of the Christ child,
or some holy image in your mind,
but on the true body of Jesus:
the very same body born of Mary
and laid in the manger 2000 years ago,
And then a few minutes later,
you hear the words: “the body of Christ”
and you respond, not with all sorts of long prayers,
and not with a long statement of your faith or devotion,
but with a simple “amen”—and silence.
And “Christ the Savior,” who “was born” in the flesh to dwell among us,
comes to you in the flesh, to dwell in you.
Yes, the crucified Jesus, but also, in a real way,
the “Holy infant, so tender and mild.”
And you go back to your pew in silence,
to speak to Him from your heart sentiments and thoughts
no words can express,
and you listen, and ponder all these mysteries,
with Mary and Joseph and the Angels.
There is a time for words and singing,
there is a time for laughter and making merry,
but there is a time for silence as well.
Even as we leave here today, and we go home to our friends and family,
and you’re in the midst of lots of cheerful noise of the day,
take a moment, from time to time, to go back to the silence in your heart.
And there be back in Bethlehem,
with Mary and Joseph, the Angels and the shepherds,
and with Jesus.
And ponder all these things,
and know the peace and joy that he alone can bring.
And as you go forward into the world this week and the new year,
and you’re surrounded by so much noise,
whether happy, sad, angry, or tiresome noise,
again, take time to go back to the quiet of your heart… to be with Jesus.
Because H e came to be with us, to dwell with us, to bring us true peace and joy,
not as the world brings it, but, as we sing, a “heavenly peace” and joy
that passes all understanding, all explanation, all words.
Not just on Christmas, as wonderful as it is, but every day.
And not just at Mass, as important as it is, but at every single moment of life.
“Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright.”