Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.
Glories stream from Heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia…
Christ the child at your birth…
In the silence of this holy night, let us listen. And let us listen together. In the silence of this holy night, let us listen together, and see if we can hear something of the “good news of a great joy for all the people”, see if we can hear something of that music from the realms of angels, chiming in the wind.
When I was growing up in Wisconsin, in the winters after a big snow, I liked to go out walking (or trudging, as the case may be). Sometimes it was with our dog. Sometimes it was alone, at night.
As I think most of us have experienced, there is a special kind of quiet that happens after a fresh snowfall has blanketed the earth. The dark air is cold and still above the clean settled weight of the bright snow.
It’s a silence that has a presence to it.
As I would walk out into the cold night, I’d find that this presence of silence was so powerful that I would become aware of just how un-silent it could be in my skull and in my heart, how loud and clamorous it could be within.
But then as I would walk through that snowy stillness spanning from horizon to horizon and down into the earth and out into the starry heavens, in that still world, with its powerful silent presence, I found that my inner turmoil would be like a snow globe and set it down and allowed to settle.
I found that it is when we are settled that we can truly listen.
Sometimes on these walks in the dead of night, in the dead of winter, when I settled into that stillness, I would hear in the darkness the deep velvet baritone call of the Great Horned Owl.
Winter is the mating season for the Great Horned Owl. So sometimes I would come near a forested area and hear “Hoohoo. HooHoo…”
And then, from somewhere else, in the distance: “Hoohoo… HooHoo.” An answer to that yearning call into the quiet.
Then soon the first owl would call again, but now from another place in the dark trees. She must have flown silently.
And the response would come again, but closer this time.
I would be as still as I could and I would listen and look as hard as I could to try to catch a glimpse of them flying through the trees as they went back and forth in this mysterious courtship dance.
But they remained hidden from my eyes. Their calls were the only sounds in that silent, dark, winter world, but there was a secrecy, an obscurity to them.
They were songs from a more-than-human realm that I had just wandered into. The experience would leave me utterly astonished and feeling grateful, like I had received a gift.
I share this with you tonight because, in my experience at least, and hearing about the experiences of others, hearing owls in the night is like a parable for how we hear the Holy Spirit sometimes, receive sacred messages calling to us … or calling beyond us, as the case may be … mysterious voices from the darkness, from a realm beyond us, hidden and yet so intimately revealed, a gift which we can hear and receive when we allow ourselves to be still and to know.
Now, it’s one thing to experience something like this alone. And it’s something else something to be with someone else, to be still together and be gifted with a shared experience where we come to know something wondrous and holy. This is part of the power of a community of faith that comes together for worship and sacred time.
“Do you hear what I hear? Do you hear what I hear?”
The shepherds outside Bethlehem were not alone when they were out keeping watch over their flocks on that silent night. They were with each other when they experienced that astonishing encounter in which they heard the good news that to them a child had been born, a child who, with his very being, would usher in the inbreaking of the Realm of Heaven on Earth, Who was himself a hidden gift so intimately revealed.
Those shepherds received and shared this gift as a community, the first community of those who would receive and share the gift that came with Jesus.
“Do you hear what I hear? Do you hear what I hear?”
The message those shepherds heard in those astonishing angelic songs, was the good news that they weren’t alone.
The meaning of Christ is: Emmanuel: God-Is-With-Us … with any of us, with all of us.
In the midst of our human condition, our Creator joins us, even in the chaos of life, even in the cacophony of our minds, even in the tumult of our hearts, even in the brokenness between us, in a hurting society.
We cannot forget that Jesus came in very fraught and violent times. His was a people too well acquainted with unjust suffering and violence, which is what he himself would suffer and pass through.
Through all of that Jesus brought with him in his very being the kind of power that clears away everything that keeps us from knowing God,
the kind of power that silences all distractions due to human pettiness and pride and sound and fury
the kind of power that embraces and binds up those parts of ourselves that have been harmed by humanity’s distance from our true Source and our true Center in God.
When we allow ourselves to be still and to hear this hidden and yet intimately present call
When we allow ourselves to then call back and say “Yes,”
And allow all our brokenness and all our blessedness to be embraced by a power beyond the bounds of our understanding,
Then we can find that, as the Apostle Paul says, it is not I who lives but Christ who lives within.
Then we can discover, as Augustine taught, that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
So let us be still together this holy night, and listen…
Thanks be to God
(Delivered Christmas Eve 2019, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, United Church of Christ, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)