Silent Night, Holy Night
Background Scripture: Luke 2:1-20.
Devotional Reading: Galatians 4:1-7.
Last year just before Christmas, I was driving in one of Dallas’ well-heeled neighborhoods, noting the extravaganzas of flamboyant decorations, near-blinding lights, ubiquitous Santas, reindeer and roly-poly snowmen.
I began to consider what I could do at my house to out-do my neighbors and thus ensure a truly “Merry Christmas.”
The next morning our newspaper carried stories of a rape, a fatal shooting and a tragic alcohol-induced traffic accident that claimed the lives of a couple and their infant son.
Then, remembering other Christmases of other times, places and moods, I decided not to join the frantic attempts to experience the “Christmas cheer” everyone chases, but few ever catch.
What would happen if, instead of agonizing over the loss of it in our schools, government offices and businesses, we concentrated on reviving it in our homes, circles of friends and churches?
In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” hard-nosed Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, the first being the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Simpler in trappings, these days were seen as more memorable. When I went to my first pastorate near Harrisburg, Pa., I was told that my predecessor had established a Christmas Eve tradition with people coming to the altar during the two hours of silence and receiving from him the elements of Holy Communion, and leaving immediately or lingering to sit in candle-lighted silence.
It seemed a strange idea — Christmas and Holy Communion? But I decided to give it a try and it became one of my most treasured recurring spiritual experiences.
Later, when I went to pastor a church in Mohnton, Pa., I took the tradition with me and it was warmly received there as well.
The 18 years of truly silent Christmas Eves were exceptionally influential for my life. Eagerly I looked forward to those silent, holy nights every Christmas Eve.
Quiet and Darkness
When I came to Dallas in 1974, my wife Valere and I decided to continue her long-standing tradition of Christmas Eve open house.
As soon as the last reluctant guests left, we loaded the car for a two-hour, often star-filled drive to her birthplace, Buffalo Springs, for the Fuller family Christmas Eve. At 9 p.m., we drove back to Dallas for the midnight Christmas Eve service at our Dallas church.
The drive back was always a wonderful experience — dark country roads sprinkled with starlight above and away in the distance the lights of one small town after another.
I have come to realize that these experiences of quiet and darkness, friends and family, the soft glow of smiles and greetings brought us closer to the manger than all the commercial trappings that we could have purchased for a hefty price.
Perhaps we all know the story of Christ’s birth so well that we miss what really made it a most holy night.
Luke’s account is powerful, although we may fail to realize it. Then as now, the most important events are expected to include the most important people, the most extravagant settings and the most favorable conditions.
This one started with a government decree no one could ignore. Not only did the Romans require a census, but those who were living somewhere other than their birthplace also were required to return there to be counted.
Mary and Joseph would journey 63 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and the elevation would climb 1,000 feet. In those days, that trip would be trial enough, but Mary was pregnant and close to the time of her delivery.
This difficult trip was climaxed when they reached Bethlehem, only to find that there was not a room vacant in all Bethlehem. Their child would have to be born in a stable.
The baby who would become Christ was not greeted by any town dignitaries or priests. None of the Bethlehemites would remember the couple, nor their infant who would change the world. Christ was longed for but not expected.
Is this not what afflicts so many of us? We unconsciously, silently long for him but not finding him in the hubbub of shopping, buying, partying, we don’t really expect to greet him.
In the Silence
I’m not suggesting that you re-read Dickens, spend three hours of healing silence in a darkened church, or drive to your own Buffalo Springs. I do urge you to surround yourself with silence and let the light of Christmas fill your mind and being.
“Christmas is not a date,” wrote Mary Ellen Chase. “It is a state of mind.”
Without that state of mind, you cannot experience it.