A Song of Bethlehem: An Advent Series
Second Sunday of Advent
6th December 2015
Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
I have this problem. I’m in a predicament. It’s a problem, a predicament of my own making. I put this Advent sermon series together around four hymns and came up with one word titles for each week. Today’s hymn is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” Today’s title is “Silence.” As I worked on the sermon this week it became clear that something was not quite right. There was something odd at work, something ironic: I was searching for words in order to talk about, preach about silence. Here I am, now, using audible sounds, words, to say something about the importance of silence in the Christian experience. I should just shut up and be quiet.
I’m good company here, though. Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of Church History at Oxford University. An extraordinary scholar, author of weighty tomes—both figuratively and literally speaking, his books usually average 900 pages, MacCulloch recently Silence: A Christian History, a 240-page book on the history of silence within the Christian tradition. It’s obviously a story worth telling.
And, yet, for all its importance within Christianity, as well as Judaism, there’s certainly not enough of silence in our lives. As Protestants, as Presbyterians, we’re an especially wordy bunch of Jesus freaks. We love words, spoken or written. We are people of the Book and of books. Yes, we’re a wordy lot. Primacy is given to the power of the spoken word to transform hearts and minds, even the world. In fact, the Reformed tradition believes that when a minister stands to preach the words, via the Holy Spirit, actually become the Word of God. Our worship is full of words. Just look at the bulletin.
However, the prophet Habakkuk reminded us, centuries ago, “Yahweh is in his holy temple; let all the world keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20)! There’s a time and place for music and song in the worship of Yahweh, a time to hear holy words, a time for prayer, for ritual, for sacraments. But all of this must not be done at the expense of silence.
Sometimes silence is the only appropriate way to worship God, because as many mystics have taught us, in both the Judaic and Christian traditions, silence itself is holy. Some have even suggested that God is experienced most profoundly in silence, because God is silence.
St. Augustine (354-430) in the fourth/fifth century said going deep and discovering the different levels of silence is what it means to “Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Mt. 25:21).
St. John Climacus (d. 606), the seventh century monk at St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai, said, “The friend of silence comes close to God.”
The German mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) said, “The noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within.”
The Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542-1591) said, “The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must It be heard by the soul.”
Angelus Silesius (1624-1677), priest and physician, said, “God far exceeds all words that we can here express. In silence he is heard, in silence worshipped best.”
From very early in our history, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (c.50-c.98-117) confessed, “God revealed himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word that came forth from silence…”
Did you catch that? Jesus Christ is God’s Word “that came forth from silence.” In other words, the Word became flesh (John 1:14) from out of the silence that is God. Before the Word there is silence. The Word emerges from the silence. Silence is holy.
My mentor, James Loder (1931-2001), was fond of saying that we go from silence to silence. All truth emerges from silence and before the awesomeness of truth, especially before the truth of God, we are silenced, rendered speechless. Because all the words in the world are inadequate before the mystery of God’s incarnation, when the Word became flesh, or, as they sang in the early Church, “when God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7).
What can be said before such mystery? How do we find words to articulate this truth? We will try, because language is also holy. That’s what theology is for: theos (God) + logos (word) = God words. But there comes a time when we must reframe from speaking, when we need to be silent and stand in awe before this mystery. Indeed, before such glory, before and under the weight of this glory it might be difficult to stand. You might find yourself slowly falling down, down on your knees in praise, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue” confess him Lord (Phil. 2:10).
Yes, the poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was right about the meaning of the Christian life. He said:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
Or carry report.
You are here to kneel….
This is the movement or direction of the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” which leads us directly into the mystery of the incarnation and cautions us to approach with silence, with fear and trembling, with awe. It invites us to kneel before the mystery.
We often sing this hymn in Advent. In The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) the hymn was placed in the Advent section. However, the hymn lost its Advent status in the new hymnal Glory to God (2013); it’s now situated in a section titled “Christ’s Return and Judgment.” The text actually comes out of the Eastern Orthodox Church, from the fourth-century Divine Liturgy of St. James, the oldest liturgy of the Christian church (around 275), a liturgy used on Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter. These words are sung during the “Great Entrance,” when the bread and wine are processed into the sanctuary during the Offertory before the celebration of the Eucharist. The hymn, or troparian, is a call to be silent and to venerate the elements of Communion, the mystery of God in the flesh.
And so we will sing this ancient hymn today, to the modern French melody PICARDY, we will sing it before we approach the Lord’s Table. Let us sing it, not in veneration of the elements, but with holy awe before the Real Presence of the Lord, whose birth—whose flesh and blood—embody the wisdom and love of God. Let us sing in veneration of the mystery of the incarnation—the Word made flesh—the Word that came forth and continues to come forth—from silence.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending
Comes our homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
Comes the powers of hell to vanquish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!
-Trans. from the Greek by Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885)
 This sermon series is designed to complement our adult education series, written by Mary Louise Bringle & Beverly Howard, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on Four Seasonal Hymns, Resource for Advent I. (The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation: The Thoughtful Christian, 2015).
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History (New York: Viking, 2013). See also Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), at 1184 pages, and The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), at 864 pages.
 See, for example, the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563.
 St. Augustine, Confessions, IX, 10.
 St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 11, 4 (5), cited in Martin Laird, Into Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 23.
 Meister Eckhart, Sermon I, in Sermons and Treatises, vol. 1, cited in Laird, 23.
 St. John of the Cross, Maxims on Love, 21, cited in Laird, 23.
 Angelus Silesius, The Cherubinic Wanderer, I, 240, cited in Laird, 23.
 Ignatius, Magnesians 8.2, cited in MacCulloch, 49.
 For more on Loder, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
 T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets.