The celebration of the Eucharist incorporates many elements, we are told in Chapter II of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, among which are the spoken and sung word, sacred gestures, and periods of silence. All of these “contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, so that the true and full meaning of the different parts of the celebration is evident and that the participation of all is fostered” (42).
These same elements (word, gesture, and silence) constitute, I believe, the heart of the mystery of the incarnation which is central to Advent-Christmas.
The opening verse of the Prologue of John’s Gospel is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).
One way to understand humankind’s relationship to God is to see it as a conversation, a dialogue between God and us which continues to the present moment. Addressing the believer directly through revelation or through the mediation of patriarchs, prophets, and priests, God makes known his life, his love, his will, and especially his desire to enter into a deep and abiding relationship.
In The Prophetic Spirit of Catechesis: How We Share the Fire in Our Hearts, Sister Anne Marie Mongoven, OP, writes of the groundbreaking work of theologian Gabriel Moran in the late 1960s in this regard, moving from a revelation-as-concept model to revelation as God’s self-communication: “[Moran] stirred not only minds but hearts, reminding his readers that God is always immanently present, reaching out in love to all” (61).
God’s first word was ‘ehyeh, “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14), and in the dialogue with Moses at the burning bush, God revealed his overwhelming concern for the Hebrews who were afflicted, saying, “I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians” (Ex 3:7-8). Thus, God manifested compassion for them in their need. The words of the prophets in subsequent centuries would reveal God’s patience, forbearance, and eagerness to forgive and restore Israel.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe” (1:1-2). God’s definitive word to us is Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, who tells us, “The Father and I love you unconditionally, forever, and faithfully.”
Words without gestures can be empty, wholly unconvincing. Protestations of love and mercy without gestures of love and mercy mean little or nothing.
Pope Saint Gregory the Great, the illustrious reformer, liturgist, and pastor of the universal church, said as much when he wrote in the sixth century: “The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist.”
This is why Jesus chose to show love rather than to simply talk about it, to practice mercy and inclusiveness rather than to preach endlessly about them. “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). Love emptied himself of divinity in the incarnation and took on our humanity. And his final act of love was to lay down that life for us on Calvary in order to reveal the perfection of God’s love.
Silence serves a vital purpose in liturgy and in life, allowing the word to be received and to resonate in the depths of our being, and creating space for the meaning and power of gestures to be grasped.
Amid the busyness of holiday preparations and ministerial demands, it can be difficult to create an atmosphere of silence and peace within. But it is necessary, for grace enters our world and our lives in silence and in emptiness.
We stand before mystery in this Advent-Christmas season: the mystery of the Word made flesh for the salvation of the world. We welcome Christ, the living Word, as Mary did long ago.
Father Anthony Schueller, SSS