The Gentle Whisper of Christ
For hearing individuals, the ears do not stop hearing when we are asleep. Rather, the ears still hear sounds; the brain just subconsciously processes them and then chooses to ignore them. That’s part of the reason why we can sleep through alarm clocks and familiar traffic noise, through the hum of appliances and the gentle stirring of the wind and rain. Our ears hear, but our brain deems what we hear as not significant enough to wake up for and attend too. Of course, how much sound we are able to sleep through depends on the individual and on a multitude of other factors as well, but, generally speaking, the quieter the sound is and the more familiar and mundane the sound is to us, the easier it is for our brains to ignore what our ears are hearing. The sound is still there; it’s just not considered significant enough for our brains to pay conscious attention too. It’s a little like how the Gospel of Matthew treats the birth narrative of Jesus.
I’ve always thought that the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel felt a little rushed and lacking — like it ignored a lot of the circumstantial details. Sure we get a little about the social scandal of Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s visit from the angel. But, in addition to an omission of how Mary felt about it all, the text sort of skips most of the details surrounding the actual birth of Jesus. We do not hear about an inn or a manger like we do in the Gospel of Luke; we do not hear about the labor pains of Mary nor about any complications. It just kind of says he was born, and then the Gospel writer moves on to chapter two.
If one only heard Matthew’s version of the birth narrative, one might think: well, I guess the specific details of Jesus’s birth are not that important to the overall story; I guess there are more pressing events to get too. Sometimes, though, not making a statement is in fact making a statement, right? — and scripture is no exception. I think there is something to be said for the fact that not much is said. This lack of mention and attention to, this blowing over the details of Christ’s birth makes me wonder if it was an intentional move by the gospel writer to say something about the nature of how God shows up in the world. So my question is this: what are we invited to hear in the birth story of Christ?
What are we invited to hear in the birth story of Christ?
- The savior is coming.
- The insignificant is significant.
- God cares about the oppressed, which we hear in Mary’s song in another gospel account.
- God is with us.
- We are invited to hear ourselves in the story and in scripture as a whole.
In most insurance policies, there is usually a clause that dictates your coverage for what are deemed “acts of god.” This phrase, acts of god, is a contractual term that refers to any kind of disaster outside of human control that cannot be predicted or avoided, such as: severe weather and natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, or earthquakes. Acts of god, though, is an interesting use of phrase that, even though is not meant to be a theological statement, reveals a common theological assumption — namely, that God is only relegated to the realm of the big and powerful, loud and explosive, almighty and forceful with the capacity for great destruction and significant hearing loss. Surely the creator of the universe must be booming and dominant, bellowing and strong, and by all means hard to miss.
This is a common assumption, right? It’s the assumption that I’m sure the prophet Elijah had as well. In the book of 1 Kings in Hebrew Scriptures, God tells Elijah to stand on top of Mount Horeb to bear witness to God passing by him. It’s likely that Elijah’s expectations of how God was about to reveal God’s self were characteristic of this very understanding of the divine: that God will show up in a force of consuming strength and sound showcasing just how almighty Almighty God truly is. But that’s not what happens.
The text says, “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence,” (1 Kings 19:11-12, NRSV). Another way of translating “sound of sheer silence” is a gentle whisper. It wasn’t in the wind, earthquake, or fire that God showed up but, rather, in a gentle whisper.
In a society that equates loudness and aggression with power, and God with almightiness and invulnerability, God challenges all expectations by showing up in a sound of sheer silence — in a whisper gently uttered. Instead of in a gale force wind, God reveals God’s self in a breath. Instead of in a rumbling earthquake, God reveals God’s self in a quiet hum. Instead of in a roaring fire, God reveals God’s self in a tender murmuring. When Elijah hears this sound of sheer silence, the text says, “he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” In other words, the quietness of God’s passing by stirred Elijah to movement towards it.
There is an invitational power in the gentle and the quiet, in the subtlety of the spirit that works within whispers because, in order to hear it, we must be paying attention and willing to lean in to listen. What is our natural response to someone who is whispering or speaking softly to us? — We get closer, lean in to proximity, lend a more attentive ear in order to be able to understand what they are saying, right? To hear a whisper requires our active participation; it requires us to close the gap between and to open our ears to the possibility of the unexpected in insignificant sound. God reveals God’s self in an unexpected way to Elijah — not through a show of force and strength but within a sound, gentle and quiet, intimately drawing the heart ever in and towards God’s own. This seems like the invitation of the incarnation, too.
When God reveals God’s self through Christ, the divine does not show up in royal robes descending on a cloud with an army behind to the sound of piercing trumpets and drums rumbling to the beat of a battle march. No, God shows up as a gentle whisper in the fragile first breath of a small and vulnerable infant child, placed not on a gilded throne but in a tucked away feeding trough by parents of humble means and questionable social status. The birth of Christ was not announced on the 6 o’clock news for all to hear; the birth of Christ was not plastered all over the front cover of the Times; the birth of Christ did not get a Netflix special; nor was it accompanied by the loud pomp and circumstance of what insurance companies deem as “acts of god.” Rather, the birth of Christ was easy to miss and dismiss, easy to overlook and ignore, easy to tune out in the insignificant static of the world as something unworthy of even mentioning.
In order to have known what was happening, one would have had to be paying attention — leaning in and listening close to hear that God is with us, to hear the good news in the sound of quiet coos coming from the swaddling cloth out back. To hear the gentle whisper of God in the birth of an unassuming savior is an invitation for us to move towards the easily ignored and tuned out — knowing that God speaks in the sounds of the seemingly insignificant if only we are willing to lean in and listen.