People of God at St. Stephen,

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright

We may not experience much silence in our lives, and, yet, a night of holy silence is what we prepare for in Advent. One of our most beloved Christmas songs tells the story. The Christ child, who transforms the world with God’s love, is born in stillness and calm, not fanfare and fireworks.

Advent is a season of hopeful preparation for the birth of Jesus and that holy silence. During those four weeks, what can or ought we do to prepare for it? In what ways might we make room for holy silence even now?

First, we might consider silence in our lives. In an average day, how much silence do you experience? How much time do you spend without speaking or being spoken to? Or without having something to do? Or without a phone, music, TV, or radio? When there is silence, maybe a momentary pause in conversation or a few seconds alone, what do you do? Fidget, pray, start talking, make a mental list of everything you need to do? Do you fill the silence or give yourself to it? And when you pray, in what proportion of your prayers do you simply listen for God, rather than talk to God?

Maybe there is not much silence in our lives. Maybe even thinking about silence makes us nervous. If so, we are not alone. The ancient Romans had a word–horrovacui–meaning “abhorrence of the void, fear of emptiness, horror of nothingness.”1 It’s the reason we may avoid silence, perhaps without even realizing we do. Put simply, “We do not want to be left alone with our thoughts.”

We may be tempted to put all the blame for our lack of silence on busy lifestyles and on new electronic gadgets. But then again, if the ancient Romans–people who lived thousands of years ago–had a word for it, perhaps it has nothing to do with computers and Blackberry’s. Perhaps it has something to do with us. We humans. Maybe it’s the reason our lives are so busy in the first place.

If considering all these questions is the first step in our Advent preparation for the holy silence of Christmas, what are the next steps?

Next, just hear this promise: because Jesus was born into silence, we are never alone with our thoughts. Jesus is there in the silence with us. Our ancestors in the faith wanted to learn and believe this promise, so they gave Jesus a special name, a nickname, you could say. It was Emmanuel, or “God with us.” In silence, in emptiness, when there is nothing else, there is Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us.”

This is the promise we hear every week in God’s Word spoken and sung, that we see and touch and taste every week in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion. It is our special message of Advent, as we await Christ’s coming at Christmas and at the end of everything. Ours is not a distant, aloof, condemning God, but a near, intimate, loving God. Christ, Emmanuel, is with us.

We believe it is so important to come to know the nearness of God’s love in Jesus Christ, that during Advent, we change our worship space. We will return to a three-section, set up, which brings us literally closer together. We will again bring the pulpit down off the raised platform to the level most of us sit and stand. This year, we will also leave the bread and wine of communion “unvested.” That is, there will be no covering or veil over it, so that we all will see and know that nothing can stand between us and Jesus.

So come and worship. Come and hear. Come and see and touch the promise of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Finally, to help us come to trust that Jesus is with us in silence, to help us prepare for Christmas’s holy silence, we will do one more thing in worship. We will be silent. Our worship follows a basic “speak-sing” pattern. After we speak our confession and hear Christ’s forgiveness, we sing a song. After we hear the first reading, we sing the psalm. And so on. During Advent, we will adjust that pattern slightly. “Speak-sing” will become “speak-silence-sing.”

While it may feel like eternity, the silence will be brief. Mostly about ten seconds at a time, with pauses of 30 to 60 seconds after the sermon or communion.

During this time, fight the temptation to fidget or make mental lists. Simply calm your mind. When that becomes difficult (and it will!), take a deep breath, exhale, and say to yourself, “Christ is with me” and try again. Parents, fight the temptation to quickly or angrily correct your children. When your child makes a noise during the silence (it will happen!), take a deep breath before you do anything. If it persists, try a silent smile and a gentle hand on his or her shoulder.

Remember, silence is not the absence of noise. Noise will happen during silence. Simply listen. God may be speaking to you through a babbling baby or a car’s horn outside. A silent mind and gentle heart–our own first–are how we spread silence. Unkind thoughts, eye-rolling, and angry shushes are uglier noise than a whole troop of screaming children.

Consider silence in your life. Hear the promise that Christ is with you in the silence. Practice silence with the rest of God’s people. This is how we will ready ourselves for God’s amazingly silent, holy night.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith

1 “Contemplation” in Christianity for the Rest of Us by Diana Butler Bass, page 120.