I've been contemplating this single line from Isaiah since well before Christmas. It appears neither in the current Roman Catholic lectionary, nor in any dating back at least 500 years. Yet the early Fathers had much to say about this single verse - there are at least six extant pieces of exegesis from a range of commentators, including Jerome and John Chrysostom.
A tip of the hat to artandsoul who reminded me of these gorgeous lines about waiting in East Coker - one of Eliot's Four Quartets.
This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 7 January 2010.
By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies.— Is. 30:15
I only had to go a quarter mile down Lancaster Avenue, but at 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve morning even that short stretch was already a daunting tangle of cars, punctuated by pedestrians darting from Acme to bakery, while a lone Haverford police officer struggled to keep order amidst the swirling chaos. The pre-Christmas frenzy was at its peak. I fled for home.
Twelve hours later, the same bit of road was eerily empty of cars and people. Streetlights shone down on bare parking lots, and storefronts were shuttered and dark as I drove to pick up Mike from his night’s stint as sacristan.
Tendrils of incense and the soft burble of conversation greeted me as I crept in the back door of the church. My jeans and sweatshirt a sharp contrast to the choir’s holiday finery, I slipped past the exuberant singers to help Mike straighten the pews and pick up the remains of the luminaries.
The calm and quiet within the church grew gradually deeper as lingering parishioners departed for home, musicians gathered up instruments and music, and Father Frank strode down the aisle on his way to the rectory.
Mike and I are the last to leave the church, still robed in its holy day finery, but now dim, still and soaked in silence. Soft echoes of Isaiah — in quiet and in trust your strength lies — follow me out the door.
We fly up to Christmas in a flurry of prayer and preparation: cooking, wrapping, rehearsing and shopping. No matter how contemplative a stance we seek, we remain sharply aware — much as Mary must have been — of an impending deadline. Suddenly the weeks of preparation climax in a glittering storm of music with candles ablaze, trumpets blasting, choirs exulting “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Our tables groan with food, our houses overflow with family and friends.
And when all is said, done and sung, what do we hear? Silence. The Word has become Flesh, but cannot speak. Salvation is ours, not yet shouted from the housetop, but to be found in waiting and in calm, in quiet and in trust. I find it apt that this passage from Isaiah is never read at Mass — or in the Liturgy of the Hours. Its liturgical silence simply and eloquently underscores its substance.
Though Advent’s expectant hush has passed, St. Augustine reminds us not to give over that sense of quiet and stillness just yet: “See what God became for your sake; learn the lesson of such great lowliness, learn it even from a teacher not yet able to speak. … for your sake your Creator lay speechless, unable even to call his mother by her name.”
As I look toward Ordinary Time and the start of the next semester, I am tempted to move on to Christ preaching and teaching, to my life packed with the purposeful and practical. Isaiah and Augustine remind me not to rush on but to remain engaged with the lessons of the infant. To contemplate the mysteries of being yet unformed, speechless, of necessity trusting that needs will be met. It is an invitation to grow slowly with God, to watch the child to see the signs of what He will become.
So this year, instead of eagerly tearing into Christmas, and then sensibly tidying away the wrappings and remnants, I’m taking the season at a more deliberate pace, letting the very way these winter days unfold lead me. The days are longer, but they lengthen almost imperceptibly; a scant 40 seconds more of light each day.
As the Christmas season gently ebbs, I am listening for words yet unspoken, to a silence that stretches the dawn, and watching the stillness, catching glimpses of the dance to come. I am content to unwrap this particular Christmas gift of salvation and strength slowly.
“But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
— T.S. Eliot, East Coker