Something at Christmas urges me (a man of many words) to write of holy silence. Perhaps it is due to one of the great Christmas antiphons, which speaks of the birth of Christ as a magnum mysterium (a great mystery). During Mass recently, the words of Zechariah came to my mind:
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord … Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling (Zechariah 2:11, 13).
There is a common idiom: “Words fail me.” It is in this context that we can best understand God’s call to fall silent before the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation. Notice in the passage above that the call to silence follows the call to “sing and rejoice.”
Is there a difference between singing and rejoice and just plain speaking? Of course there is! By adding the inscrutable sighs we call “song” (a deeply mysterious emanation from our souls) to the words, singing is declaring that “words fail.”
To be sure words, are a “necessary evil” for us, but in using words we indicate more what a thing is not than what it is. For example, if I say to you, “I am a man,” I have really told you more what I am not than what I am. I have told you I am not a woman, nor a chair, nor a lion, nor a rock. But I have not told what it means to be a man. I have not told you myriad other things about myself that I could: I am a priest; my father was a lawyer and Navy veteran; my mother was a teacher; I am descended from Irish, German, and English immigrants. I have not told you about my gifts, or my talents, or my struggles, or numerous other aspects that make me who I am. And even if I spent several paragraphs relating my curriculum vitae to you, there would still be vastly more left unsaid than was said. Words fail.
Further, words are not the reality they (often poorly) attempt to convey. They are symbols of what they indicate. If you see a sign, “Washington” you don’t stop there and take a picture of the sign. The sign itself is not Washington; it merely points to the reality that is Washington. You pass the sign and enter into a reality far bigger than the metal sign and begin to experience it. Words fail.
Many words are also more unlike the reality they describe than like it. My philosophy teacher once asked us how we would describe the color green to a man born blind. We struggled with the task but were able to come up with some analogies: green is like the taste of cool mint; green is like the feel of dew-covered grass. To some extent green is like these things, but the color green is more unlike these things than like them. Green, as a reality, is so much richer than the taste of cool mint or the feel of dew-covered grass. Words fail.
And if this be so in the case of mere earthly things, how much more so in the case of heavenly and Godly matters! The Lord therefore commands a holy silence of us as a kind of reminder that words fail. Silence is proper reverence for the mystery of the incarnation and of God. Words are necessary; without them orthodoxy could not be set forth and truth could not be conveyed. But, especially regarding God and the truths of faith, there comes this salutary reminder from St. Thomas Aquinas: “Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue).
Therefore, fellow Catholics, as the mysteries of the incarnation unfold for us liturgically, Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, bearing blessings in his hand (from the hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”).