When the angel Gabriel told the priest Zechariah that his infertile wife Elizabeth was going to bear a son, Zechariah asked, "How will I know that this is so?" For posing this question, Zechariah was struck mute until after Elizabeth delivered her baby. In my sermon last week on this story, I said,
For doubting God’s word, Zechariah was robbed of his words for a time. God’s justice is always poetic. And yet, perhaps Zechariah wasn’t being punished. Perhaps this nine-month sentence of muteness was a gift to him, a gift to ponder anew the God who makes promises and keeps them, a precious time to stoke cold embers of hope into a flame that would engulf his heart in a renewed love for his creator.
Afterward a member of the congregation ventured the opinion that nine months of silence might have been a tad excessive, even if it were a gift. It's hard to disagree.
On the other hand, when Zechariah finally got his voice back, he broke into song. The Song of Zechariah, commonly known as the Benedictus--for that is the first word of the song in Latin--would be sung by choirs of monks and congregations of Christians for millennia. See what creative genius can grow in the petri dish of silence!
There is something about Christmas that makes us burst into song. Of all the Christian music there is in the English language, Christmas carols are the best known. And yet the carols, ironically enough, pay tribute to the virtue of silence.
"Silent night, holy night/All is calm, all is bright."
"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given."
"Still, still, still/He sleeps this night so chill!"
Maybe it's because words fail to do justice to the Eternal Word putting on flesh and blood. Maybe we do well to speak less and ponder more, as Jesus's mother did once the singing angels withdrew into heaven and the noisy shepherds returned to their fields.
Diadochos of Photiki, a fifth-century monk, said that the person who talks too much is like a steam bath whose doors stand open all the time. Before you know it, the heat has dissipated. Silence shuts up the spiritual and intellectual heat, and gives birth to a more profound wisdom.
So in this noisy season which resounds with both the good sounds of Christmas carols and the wearisome noises of cranky shoppers, take time to be silent. And in the silence, may God give you anew the wondrous gift of heavenly blessings. Faith. Hope. Love.