Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Silence: The Perfect Place for God
Good evening and Merry Christmas to you! My name is Paul Bresnahan and I come to you as an ordained Episcopal Priest, now celebrating 41 years of ordained service in the church. I have served congregations in the Diocese of Massachusetts, Ohio, South Carolina, West Virginia and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Cindy and I returned to our native Boston area. I have retired three times and now your vestry and I have agreed to a three month time of coverage. So now I am now working on my fourth retirement. I’ve been a rector, a priest in charge, an interim, but this is now the first time I’ve been a “bridge priest”. I suppose if you live long enough, you’ll see just about everything!
We come to Christmas Eve, my favorite service of the year. This is Christmas, literally the Mass of the Nativity of the Christ Child. We celebrate the birth of a child born to an unwed mother, and in a family of modest means. He is born in a stable where the animals surround him, shepherds come to visit, Wise Men begin their journey and heaven and nature sings “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all.” Here and now in the darkest time of the year the Light of the World dawns upon us in its most vulnerable form.
And the event evokes in us such love and such devotion as to move our hearts in ways any birth of any child moves us. But this is the Holy Child, this is the Mother mild, this is the Holy Family. And so we sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” as radiant beams from heaven afar warm us all. Often when we sing these song, tears of joy and tears of sorrow so deep begin to fall for some because this Silent Night, this Holy Night touches the deepest part of our souls.
It sure does me, and not just because I’m a sentimental Irishman. This is because of the fact that in the bleak mid winter of my eighth year to heaven, my dad died. There is no easy way to say that. It was on December 27th 1953. That’s 60 years ago this Christmas. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was difficult to understand for an eight year old. It was the signature moment of my early life.
I do remember praying to the silence at night as I listened to the bells toll out the hours from St. John’s Church in Cambridge or as the trolleys along Mass Avenue squealed steel wheels upon steel rails...there were trolleys tin those days. And so it was that I prayed to the silence long into the night and often cried myself to sleep, recognizing increasingly day after day that I would never see my dad again. There were those who said that he couldn’t go to heaven because he didn’t go to church. And so it was that I began to wonder; “Not only will I not see my dad again in this life, neither will I see him in the next.” Some Christians could be awfully mean I thought then, some still are.
On the other hand there was my grandmother; a woman of enormous faith, compassion and love. She sent me to church with a coin to put in the collection plate. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen in my life. Much like this holy place, there were stained glass windows, beautifully hand carved wood, a choir with the sound of angels, and the magnificent literature of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. I fell in love with the church then and there. They did ask me to say “Our Father who art in heaven.” I looked high into the clerestory of that magnificent church and could not see my father or Our Father. But there was something about being there that made me mindful of God, of Jesus and what they called the Holy Ghost. That one spooked me a bit, but I was only a child.
In the meantime I prayed to the silence at night. My mom would have me kneel by my bedside and say a prayer that went; “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake....” Egad, not only my dad, now you’r talking about my own last moments and I’ve hardly just begun to live. And so it went night after night; Silent Night after Silent night. By the way Cindy and I changed the language of that prayer; “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guard me Jesus through the night, and wake me with the morning light.”
But then one day on my way home from church one very sunny and beautiful day, I found myself sauntering along by an old and shabby city hedge. I mindlessly pulled a solitary leaf off that hedge and pressed my thumb into its girth. As I looked down at the green chlorophyll that now found itself stain my thumb nail, I “heard” something in my heart that seemed to say something. I heard no voice, but there was something like a sense that moved inside the deepest place of my heart. Whatever or Whoever it was that moved in my heart at that moment changed my life, because in the total silence the still small voice said; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in My heart for your dad?”
I stopped dead in my tracks, and gave voice to the sense that spoke deep within. I said it right out loud; “Don’t you know that there’s a special place in My heart for your dad?” My whole being shuddered, my heart raced with excitement and I ran home as fast as I could, burst into the front door, and bounded into the kitchen where my grandmother was busy at here cast iron skillet she called her spider, peppering up something good to eat.
“Ma”, I said, “is there really a God?
“Of course there is”; a pretty straight forward question and answer that was.
“Ma, is there a heaven?”
Now somewhat irritated, after all she was in the press of providing for the family meal, hardly a time for the pursuit of theology but she did say; “Of course there is”.
So I dared ask this question; “Ma, is my daddy there?” I knew that I was taking my chances with a question like this. After all, more than once she said that it was the Irish who ruined Boston. Especially in the aftermath of the divorce, my mom has her issues with my dad. So did my grandmother. She did hesitate, I must tell you, but what she did then became an unforgettable moment for me.
She knelt down and held me close. She folded my head into the nape of her neck and she said; “Of course he is” Even now it is as though I can still smell the scent of her hair, the kind of “odor of God” the Christian mystics write about of their encounters with the Divine .
Now when I went to bed at night the silence became a Presence. That Presence became Someone I could pour my heart out to. In time I learned that that the Presence had a Name. God, my creator, my dad’s creator, the creator of all that is visible and invisible. The Presence had a Name; Jesus, the savior of the whole world...of all who would turn to him and love him who first loved us. The Presence had a Name; The Holy Spirit, the Holy Wisdom from on High, the gift giver of all that is good and noble and true and pure.
Now the Silent Night became the Holy Night. I gave myself body and soul to the Holy Trinity. For me this was no doctrine but my living Companion. And as I bound myself to the strong Name of the Holy Trinity day after day, Holy Night after Holy Night, I became a man who from my boyhood wanted to be a priest of the church.
I wanted to stand at the Altar of God and in the pulpit and tell all who wanted to hear, and many who didn’t that there’s a special place in God’s heart for you, each and every one of you, of all those you love both in this life and in the life to come in the ever nearer Presence of God.
So Merry Christmas! God be with you and may you be with God this Holy Night; this Silent Night. It is a joy to be with you tonight in this very, very sacred space. May God bless us everyone.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.