The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.
Those words, penned by Edmund Sears in 1849, conclude the first stanza of the carol “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” On this twelfth and final day of Christmas, I hope you have managed to find at least a moment of solemn stillness somewhere in this season. Maybe that stillness has allowed you to hear a message from God.
That’s what angels bring after all – they bring messages. In fact, we’ve just transliterated the word (instead of translating it) into English. Angel means messenger, and the message of the angels on Christmas is no mystery. Luke, the evangelist, gives it to us, and Sears, the poet, passes it on verbatim: “Peace on the earth, goodwill to all.” It might sound like boilerplate language from Hallmark, but it’s a profound reminder, if we pause to ponder it, of what the birth of Jesus was meant to accomplish. It wasn’t for the salvation of individual souls that the Word became flesh, but to bring peace (salvation, if you like) to all of God’s creation.
The irony of Christmas, as most of us celebrate it now, is that there is very little solemn stillness involved. Even at church, it can be difficult for us to allow ourselves to be still and silent before God. But without that silence, how can we expect to hear the message of peace that God still sends?
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be Christmas, and we don’t have to be in church, to cultivate silence and solitude and thus tune our ears to God’s voice. We might find it late at night or early in the morning, when everyone else in the house is asleep. Perhaps a lunchtime walk or a moment in the car waiting to pick the kids up would offer an opportunity. Whenever we have the chance to listen, if we hear no heavenly choirs as the shepherds did, we are not to worry. “Silence is God’s first language,” wrote John of the Cross, “everything else is poor translation.”
On this last day of Christmas, you might Google “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” and contemplate the lyrics yourself as a devotional activity (the third of the original five stanzas, left out of most hymnals, is my favorite). If you do, you’ll notice throughout that noise is the enemy of peace. Peace requires us to listen, and, in order to listen, we must be silent.
If nothing else, maybe I’ve put a peaceful tune in your head today. And as we leave the Yuletide behind, maybe that tune will remind you that we all need solemn stillness all year long.
–Ryan Bailey, director of faith formation