Silence at Christmas

Silence at Christmas

Christmas. Fr Euan Marley preaches on the Gospel read at Mass during the Day.

A friend of mine was abroad for a year and after he returned he discovered that the pubs were now serving something strange and wonderful – non-alcoholic beer. He hadn’t tasted any but he asked me if I knew what it was like. I assured him that it was just like ordinary beer, the only difference being that after two or three pints, you didn’t become wonderfully witty and the centre of attention. Judging by the look he gave me, I am not sure that he realised it was the beer.

Whatever eloquence alcohol produces, or appears to produce, carry on drinking and it soon has quite the opposite effect. Some drinkers start to demonstrate a strange phenomenon where they appear to have on the tip of their tongue an ultimate wisdom. They are ready to say words which will express, out of the deepest recesses of their heart, the great truth that they have just discovered, the great love aroused in them by the numbing effects of considerable amounts of alcohol.

It’s wouldn’t do to be too eager in waiting for this great revelation. It’s not going to come. The drunken philosopher won’t actually succeed in getting any words out. Instead they will appear like some Abraham Lincoln, caught in a time warp, ceaselessly repeating the first fraction of a second when he opens his mouth – he takes a deep breath, raises his finger in a dramatic pose and then proceeds to say nothing.

The process can be endlessly repeated. Due to the natural confluence of things, there are often other people in a similar state, who are relaxed enough and hopeful enough to wait for the revelation without any sense of frustration or disappointment, no matter how often the non-speaker fails to deliver.

I shouldn’t mock, as there is something charming in this little slice of life, which will be observed many times during this season of cheer. In Vino Veritas, which usually means that drink weakens our ability to dissemble to others or to deceive ourselves, a human occupation that requires rather more concentration than the state of intoxication allows.

It can also mean that the drunken person has reached the utterly relaxed state where he starts to express something of his fundamental humanity. There is a certain state of drunkenness where we can see in its simplest form a very human desire manifesting itself.

This desire is the desire to say, once and for all, all that we have to say. People are speaking animals but speech is difficult. We say much that we wish we hadn’t said, we fail to say what we wish we had said, and when we finish saying what we have to say, we find that it’s just not enough. I think a substantial part of the fear of death is the fear that we will die without saying what we really need to say, that, as Hamlet says, the rest is silence.

Despite the carol, Christmas was not really a silent night. There was quite a lot of noise, shepherds talking to each other, angels singing, and wise men wandering towards Jerusalem to disturb the peace, calling for the new born king.

Yet we know what the carol means. There is a silence at the heart of the Christmas story, a silence that imposes itself on all the participants. Yet here we come close to a great Christian paradox. ‘In the beginning was the Word’, and this silence is in fact the true speech of God.

God alone can express himself in a single word. God alone does this through all eternity and this word is his Son, the speaking of his whole self in the breath of the Spirit. A perfect word, which is very much like silence.

The drunken mystic, the chatterbox, Mr Angry shouting at the top of his voice, and the great bores of this world, masters of the art of droning on and on, are all showing, whether they know it or not, a desire to perfect in themselves the image of the Trinity who made them. In the beginning was the Word, in the end there will be the created word, echoing it in joy.

Readings: Isa 52:7-10 | Heb 1:1-6 | John 1:1-18

fr. Euan Marley O.P. is Prior at Blackfriars, Cambridge.