It’s December once again, and depending on your age, your memories and the length of your to-do list, you are entering the Christmas countdown with hopeful expectation offset by a weary wariness. You know the story; but you’ve heard it so many times that it’s hard to listen with fresh ears, even though you live with a hunger for the holy. So, pause for a moment, take a deep breath, close your eyes and imagine, way back, 2,000 years ago — what did that first Christmas sound like? How might you hear the story with the ears of your heart?
You are in Bethlehem, a small town filled with the street sounds of evening: the nickering of horses and the clink of Roman armour; donkey hooves on the cobblestones; a call for a child to come home; the scraping of cutlery on supper plates at the inn, and the murmur of voices, occasionally loud as more wine is poured. And you say to yourself, it is here, in the midst of the ordinary sounds of everyday life, that Jesus will be born; back then, and now, maybe, in the ordinary sounds of your life.
Stay in Bethlehem, keep listening carefully, and on the edge of town you will hear the sounds of a woman in labour. Mary’s cries of push and pain don’t often get mentioned, but they are part of any Christmas story. The work of the flesh — “It hurts. I can’t. It hurts too much!” — accompanied by the soft words of a midwife’s comfort: “Sure you can. Take a deep breath; now push, gently. It’s okay.” These are the sounds that herald God’s arrival — our bodies at work, in labour, filled with tears and groans, mixed with kind words of care and support. Back then, and also now.
Then comes the cry of the newborn Jesus! Forget all those carols that warble, “No crying he makes” — of course he did. It’s the noise of new life, of creation. He’s loud — more decibels than a jackhammer, they say. There’s no ignoring the wailing of a baby, piercing, persistent, demanding our attention. This is always how love arrives, with a noisy demand for response, compassion, care; a cry that can rattle your brain, but also one that makes a mother’s breasts leak milk; a cry that promises such joy, such wonder — the sound that lies at the heart of Christmas.
Keep listening to the story, which now takes you out of town, into the nighttime hills surrounding Bethlehem, where the shepherds are keeping watch over their sheep. Clouds of stars glitter in an endless sky, and in the deep silence you hear the mystery of it all, the voice of God filled with space and time. They say the universe hums with a deep, oh-so-very-low B flat. Christmas needs a lot of silence in order to hear what’s really being said — make sure that’s part of your Christmas.
And then the angels. Maybe a wind and the mind’s imaginings, maybe dreams, but for sure, a love song. Perhaps a soft whisper or the sound of trumpets, but always a golden hallelujah filled with joy. Angels, and then the shepherds running, loud with their excitement. And then the magi. As the poet Heinrich Heine says, the kings, as they fell on their knees, “the kings began to sing.” The world is made for praise, and we humans are made for singing — this too is what Christmas sounds like.
And then, once again, quietness. Angels, shepherds and wise men have departed. The baby Jesus has nursed and is sleeping. The stars are still shining in the winter sky. Bethlehem is finally silent. But Mary remains awake, with a small, tired smile — and what is the sound of her heart’s pondering?
So what does Christmas sound like? Singing and silence; a mother’s labour and a baby’s cry; and the ordinary sounds of life. It sounds like now. As Christmas arrives, be sure to listen carefully — so that you have a Christmas that matters.
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