People of my age bracket may remember one of my favorite songs from the 60s, the one that propelled the folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel to fame. Paul Simon began writing The Sound of Silence after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The tune is haunting, the lyrics dreamy, ambiguous, and filled with youthful angst about the meaning of life.
As we begin this Advent season, I’m reminded of the place of silence in the Christmas story. We sing of the Silent Night surrounding Mary, Joseph, and the Christ-Child, or wonder at the quiet miracle in the stillness of little Bethlehem:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given / So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven / No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin / Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
In the gospel of Luke, the lowly shepherds are the meek souls who are treated to the heavenly fanfare. But in Matthew, the paranoid and powerful ruler of Judea, Herod the Great, knows nothing of the miracle until strangers land on his doorstep inquiring innocently about the one born to be King of the Jews (2:1-3). Ever scheming, Herod keeps his composure and dons a mask of piety to maneuver the magi into revealing the location of the child (2:7-8). Promising to worship, he plans to kill, as he has done so many times before to protect his throne.
But God thwarts Herod by warning the magi not to return to Jerusalem (2:12). Red with rage, Herod orders a massacre: every boy in the vicinity of Bethlehem, two years old or younger, is to be killed (2:16). Why two years? Herod had learned from the magi the date they had first seen the star that heralded the child’s birth (2:7), and acted accordingly; Jesus may well have been a toddler by the time of Herod’s rampage.
Herod’s rule was all sound and fury. But for all the murder and intrigue, for all Herod’s iron-fisted micromanagement, he was impotent and ignorant in the matter of the miracle that had been quietly unfolding right under his nose for two years.
Heartbreakingly, the story leaves the weeping and wailing in Ramah unresolved (2:18). Did the parents of the slaughtered ever know the reason? By that time, the Christ-child was on his way to Egypt (2:14-15), there to remain until the tyrant’s death. Upon what God did those bereaved mothers call? Did they have to be content with divine silence?
For the moment, Matthew gives us only this: from the days of ancient prophecy to the present terror, God is at work, miraculously but silently.
He is working, still.