It is the fourth Sunday in Advent and Christmas Eve – a rare confluence. In fact some churches modified the Advent Calendar slightly this year to make sure the confluence does not occur, but regardless of your Advent calendar it is a marvelous Sunday. And I am still looking for lessons from the Christmas story I can practice. I’ve looked at empathy, miracles and humility. Today I think I will take my cue from my own adjective and try to practice marveling.
What do I mean by “marveling?” Well, have you ever seen something for the first time and been struck dumb? That’s what I am talking about – something so incredible that you simply have to look at it and marvel, no talking – just looking. It has been my good fortune to visit the Grand Canyon more than once in my life. On repeat trips you begin to notice that such stunned silence is most people’s reaction to their first sighting of the canyon. Despite vast crowds, the rim of the canyon, particularly where people first see it, is a remarkably quiet place. I had this reaction when I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem and likewise in Holy Sepulchre.
Similar reactions come when confronted with great evil as well, yet it is different. Everyone spoke in whispers when I visited the Nazi parade grounds in Nuremberg, but it was more out of fear than awe. I know that I felt to speak loudly would be to risk stirring the great evil that had celebrated itself in that location. I was not marveling. However, less than an hour later when I stood in the courtroom where the war trials occurred, I again marveled that justice was found in the end.
We live in such a noisy world and it seems to be getting louder and louder every day. There is value in silence.
Consider the Christmas creche scene with which we are all so familiar. So often we experience it with music in the background or in our heads. Often we see it with kids playing roles on the street and the noise is cacophonous. Yet over the centuries the the view has been captured in so many ways, from pop art to bad Sunday School to the Great Masters. Somewhere is an image that you like and can see in silence. I have been fortunate enough to encounter a few such images in museums or churches around the world. They have changed my perspective on Christmas.
On the shores of Lake Ohrid, near the border between Macedonia and Albania is a monastery called “Sveti Naum.” It is kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but I was fortunate enough to visit it some years ago with only two companions, virtually alone. The church is adorned, as are most Orthodox churches, with frescoes everywhere you look. This was my first visit ever to such a place. The frescoes depict all the great Bible stories of the life of Christ. Painted in an illiterate age they serve to tell the viewer the story of Jesus when words were not available. Of course the Nativity is among them – and when I saw it I had to stop. It is not a particularly good depiction, I have seen many better since, but it did cause me to marvel. My companions, locals, had been there many times and were outside displaying that sort of “been there, done that” attitude – I was alone and it was silent.
The experience gave me a new perspective on the Nativity. It was not about theological understanding or historical perspective – it was simply about beauty – stunning, overwhelming beauty. I would have to think that “beautiful” is the word most often used to describe the birth of a child. We have all heard it thousands of time. There was something about the silence, the solitude and the setting of that place that allowed me to see that the birth of Christ contained all the beauty of any childbirth but that layered on top of that was the indescribable beauty of God Himself. It was an experience of the presence of God unlike any other I have ever had. I was marveling and the experience was marvelous.
Amidst the noise and bustle of the holiday season we need to marvel, silently, at that which we celebrate. My prayer for all of us is that sometime over the next two days we can find the opportunity.