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Children at Mass Part 2: Silence and Advent

As I mentioned last week, I would like to continue to spiritually reflect with you all on the significance of the presence of children at Mass. This week, we shall look at the topic specifically through the lens of the Advent season; a season in which the focus of our prayer and worship is on one child in particular.

First, let’s consider the fact that Advent is a season focused on silence in a variety of ways. The Liturgy in every season is meant to incorporate silence in an intentional way. Paragraph 30 of the doctrinal Church document Sacrosanctum Concilium words it very succinctly, “And at the proper times, all should observe a reverent silence.” Pope Benedict (a cardinal at the time) reflects, “We are realizing more and more clearly that silence is part of the liturgy. We respond, by singing and praying, to the God Who addresses us, but the greater mystery, surpassing all words, summons us to silence. It must, of course, be a silence with content, not just the absence of speech and action. We should expect the liturgy to give us a positive stillness that will restore us.” (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 209). None of this should surprise us. We see again and again in Scripture and in the writings of the saints that the Lord’s speaks in silence. And when faced with the context of the enormous and eternal mystery of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, silence is necessary lest we overpower the mystery with our attempts to explain through word and song. The external expressions of worship and prayer in the Liturgy always culminate in silence, for ultimately prayer and worship in voice reach their climax in wordless wonderment at the great mystery that is beyond all expression, words, and understanding.

Silence is important in the Liturgy, and it is all the more a focus during Advent for a variety of reasons. Silence is used as an ontological (a philosophy term meaning, ‘relating to the nature of being,’) metaphor in theology to reflect the significance of the incarnation. Into a dead, dark, empty world that was cut off from God in a significant way, God spoke ‘The Word’ into it. The silence of creation, unable to fulfill its purpose in giving full voice to the glory of God, was broken by the utterance of a single divine Word made incarnate in the cry of a small child. The silence was shattered as God ‘broke into the world’ that had spiritually put up barricades against His presence. In recognition of this momentous occasion, the heavens opened and Angels choirs burst into physical song over the heads of the shepherds to herald the dawn of a new age; the birth of a new king; the resuscitation of a suffocated world. We reflect on that event with a new kind of silence. A silence that is not dead and empty like the world before his coming. Rather, it is a new silence that is alive with the presence of God. We are made breathless by mystery of the incarnation, not the breathlessness of death, but the breathlessness of having nothing to do but stand in wonder.

These are just a few of many reasons to reflect on and observe silence in Advent. And now the question: how does this increased focus on silence work with having the noise of children at Mass? As we have seen in this reflection, silence can mean different things. It can be dead, it can be alive, it can be empty, it can be full, it can be with or without content or context (as Ratzinger said). The kind of silence that we hope for at the Liturgy is not the same kind of silence we would seek in private prayer. It is a silence that, in essence, is not destroyed but, perhaps, is even deepened by the presence of somewhat vocal children. It is a full, alive, and meaningful kind of silence specifically because it is the silence of communal, not private, worship. As we wonder at the mystery of the incarnation made present to us in the Eucharist and reflect back on that silent night into which God spoke the ‘Word,’ His very Son made flesh, we find our silence broken by the sounds of babies crying; the ultimate signs of life, the living symbols of the new hope that awoke in the world when the Christ-child announced with similar cries His long-desired arrival. As we reflect in the silence of Liturgy and have our silent meditation invaded by the audible presence of children, may it lead us as a worshipping community into a deeper silence in which we simply sit in wonder and awe at the gift of life itself and the redemption God offered to the world, introduced on a silent night by the cries of a newborn babe.


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