When all things were enveloped in quiet silence, and when the night had reached the mid-point in its course, your all-powerful Word leaped from he height of the heavens, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed… (Book of Wisdom 18:14-15)
Don’t look for the Book of Wisdom in your Bible. Chances are you won’t find it if your Bible is one of the most commonly used translations. It’s also called The Wisdom of Solomon, though Solomon had nothing to do with it. It was written many centuries after Solomon died. It is one of those books that didn’t make it into the Hebrew Scriptures that we call the Old Testament. This Book of Wisdom was written about 200 years before Christ and it circulated in the Greek language among the Jews of the Diaspora. Thus it is part of the Ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament that we call the Septuagint. Because Greek was the common language of the first Christian communities, this Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures became the Bible of the Church. The Protestant Reformation decided to discard the Greek version of the Old Testament and accepted only the books that the Jews themselves considered part of their Scriptures. Most English translations of the Bible adhere to the Protestant idea of what should be in the Old Testament. Thus you won’t find the Book of Wisdom in your English Bible – unless you have one of the Bibles published for Catholic or Orthodox use. Or if you have an ecumenical edition of the RSV or the NRSV.
And yet that verse that I just read from the Book of Wisdom is an astonishing statement, the could have been written by one of the apostles. In truth, chapter 18 of the Book of Wisdom deals with the punishment of Egypt back in the days of Moses. But as with many parts of what we call the Old Testament it is a verse so pregnant, so filled with divine insight, that it easily lends itself to re-interpretation in the light of Jesus Christ. Just as today in our Gospel reading we hear how Matthew re-interpreted the words of Isaiah to refer to the announcement of Christ’s birth. Isaiah’s inspired words about a virgin giving birth received new meaning, new far deeper meaning than what Isaiah could have imagined.
Christianity is a religion of the Word, the Logos. And the Word is Love, because God is Love! The verse from Wisdom tells us that the Word emerges from silence, in silence, in quiet silence. What do we call that, a tautology? Quiet silence. Isn’t silence quiet by definition? But repetition of the same idea reinforces how absolute is the silence from which the Word emerges, LEAPS from the throne of the heavens. What a magnificent image for the incarnation, for the coming of Christ as the incarnate Word of God. Pure mystical theology in just that sentence from a book that you won’t find in your Bible, but which should be in every Bible.
We live in a world of noise, relentless assaults of noise, cacophony of sounds that have little value. I know what I’m talking about. I love noise! I am noisy! Most of us do not know what to do with silence. And yet, as St. Isaac of Syria liked to say, silence is the language of heaven. 38 years ago I asked an aspiring young iconographer to do an icon of St. Isaac for me with his famous quote, “Above all things, love silence.” I’m not a quiet person, but I know that the way to be most open to God is to practice silence. Not just silence of words, but also silence of the mind and the emotions and the rumblings of the stomach and the flesh.
“Silent Night,” we sing at Christmas. Sentimental words about a sweet baby. Perfect words for those nativity scenes that are popular this time of year. But even this sentimental carol speaks of a ‘silent night’. Silent, and yet shepherds quake at the sight, while “glories stream from heaven afar’ and “heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!” You see, even in this carol, silence is not just absence of noise – it is filled with glory and the sounds of heaven.
The silence is not an empty silence. While Bethlehem sleeps, God’s Word leaps into our world, “into the midst of the land that was doomed.” The land that was doomed was Egypt. In the middle of the night, God’s punishment came upon Egypt and the house of Pharaoh. It is no longer Egypt that is doomed; it is every land and every human community where the noise of our confusion and restlessness prevents the Word of God from speaking in our souls and hearts the eternal and infinite love of God.
Words are not love, for they are many and Love is One – Thomas Merton wrote that in the preface to a Japanese translation of one of his books. Words are many; but the Word, the Word the leaped from heaven, is One. Even the words of Scripture are just pointers to the Word; they are not the Word. The Word does not need words. It only needs an empty heart, a heart ready to receive and be filled with the knowledge of God’s infinite love. Christianity has become simply a bunch of doctrines, a bunch of beliefs that you supposedly need to accept in order to be saved. Doctrines are important. But doctrines don’t save. They are only pointers, just like the Bible itself is a pointer to the only doctrine that really saves: The doctrine that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). The Word leaped from the height of the heavens into the body of a young girl in order to reveal the depth and height and magnitude of God who is Love. I don’t even say God’s love, because GOD is Love!
Dear friends, Christmas is just four days away. You’ll be busy with cooking and other preparations, maybe some last-minute shopping. Do what you need to do to prepare a wonderful celebration. But don’t clutter your mind and heart with anything else. Turn the TV off, don’t watch any news beyond headlines. Practice a little emptying of mind so that the Word might leap from the height of heaven into your life today. This sounds a little mystical, I know, but God who is Love desires to fill you with Love so YOU become Love! What better Christmas gift could there be? This is God’s Christmas gift to you!
The above was preached as a sermon with some changes in wording. Audio file below.