Silent Night, Holy Night;
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace;
sleep in heavenly peace!
Silence, calm, peacefulness: the marks of a night where all is quiet, everyone sleeping, nothing stirring. But on this night, the silence is a cover, a disguise, to hide from prying eyes the beginnings of a radical plan to rescue us from a trap we had fallen into so long ago.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (Gen. 1:1) And of all the things He created, man was the pinnacle: created in His own image and likeness, he was intended to live in free and perfect communion with his Creator, sharing His dominion over the creation: "Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name." (Gen. 2:19) God wanted to share everything with him, His very life, offering him the possibility of becoming, by grace, what He is by nature.
It did not take long for God's plan to go awry. Seduced by the one whose bitterness and envy and despair now infect the whole creation, man tasted (experienced, in the biblical metaphor) the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent promised him that "in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil". (Gen. 3:5) God wanted man to be like Him, but in His own way and His own time. Man wanted it his way, to be like God without God, and the result, sadly, is our alienation from Him and from each other since that day. We were deceived, duped -- trapped, and unable to save ourselves.
So on this silent, holy night, thousands of years later, God took it upon Himself to save us. He sent His Son, "who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." (Phil. 2:6-8) But He sent Him in disguise: as a baby, in meekness, humility, even mortality (for God, the ultimate act of humility!). He did this out of respect for our freedom, the freedom with which He endowed us in creating us, the freedom which makes us like Him. We had freely chosen to go our own way; we had freely (though unwittingly) enslaved ourselves to the deceiver. And now He, Himself, submitted to the deceiver's rules:
1. Every man sins;
2. Sin, because it separates us from God, the source of our life, brings about our death;
3. Therefore every man dies.
Now he, the deceiver, knew that something was going on.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard these things he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.'" (Micah 5:2) Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also."
-- Matthew 2:1-8
Of course, Herod's plan was not to worship Him but to kill Him. The wise men were warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, so they returned to their own country in secret.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they were no more." (Jeremiah 31:15)
-- Matthew 2:16-18
Silent night? Holy night? Hardly! Jesus escaped this first of many attempts on his life when his foster-father, Joseph, being himself warned in a dream, fled with Him and His mother, Mary, to Egypt, until the death of Herod. Even then, they could not return to their home in Judea, but settled in the city of Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. The deceiver did not give up trying to destroy him. Thirty-three years later, he succeeded -- even though he did not grasp, until it was too late, what would be the result. For in "humbling Himself and becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross", Jesus shattered his rules -- and thereby, his rule over the creation:
1. Every man sins -- but Jesus did not sin, ever;
2. Sin, because it separates us from God, the source of our life, brings about our death -- but Jesus, being God, was never and could never be separated from God, and being immortal, could not be held captive by death;
3. Therefore every man dies -- and in submitting to this unjust death, Jesus, the one son of Adam who should not have been subject to death, breaks death's hold on us!
He destroys its power over us; he frees us from our enslavement to the deceiver whose lies caused us to die in the first place. He traps, in his own rules, the one who entrapped us! Silent night? Holy night? Ho ho ho! It marks for us the beginning of the end of our enslavement to bitterness and envy and despair, our alienation from God and from each other, and ultimately from our true selves and all we were created by God and intended -- with great love! -- to be.
If today marks for us the beginning of the end, then the end of the end comes at Easter, when Christ's victory over death is celebrated and proclaimed. Each year, on that holy night, we hear these words from the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom:
Let no one fear death, for the Savior's death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was slain! It was embittered, for it was overthrown! It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains! It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave! For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages! Amen.
Amen -- Christ is Born! Glorify Him!