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It Was Never a "Silent Night"

December 22, 2008

The beloved hymn has it all wrong:

Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright.

Round yon Virgin Mother and child; holy infant so tender and mild.

Sleep in Heavenly peace…

That night was anything but silent or serene or even peaceful.

If the biblical texts accurately describe the events, the night of Jesus’ birth started with tons of anxiety.  “No Vacancy” signs dotted the cityscape and carpenter’s wages couldn’t get you an upgrade.  Finding a small barn was lucky.  


If our modern nativity scenes have it half-way right, the stable was full of all things unsanitary.  Nasty straw.  Farm varmints wandering around.  Manure and urine filling the floors and the sinuses.  And most farm animals I’ve ever lived with (and that’s a good many) aren’t quiet.  Especially the bleating sheep.  In that kind of facility, street noise pulses through holey walls.  And I know the Bible doesn’t mention weather conditions, but it’s not hard to imagine a chilling rain outside.

And then childbirth itself.  Without an epidural or even Tylenol, Mary would have screamed from every pore in her body.  And Joseph– probably a caring, but ineffectual male like the rest of us guys at these times–could do nothing to relieve the pain.  And like all births, it was a bloody, watery, membraney mess.

And then there is Jesus the newborn:

Radiant beams from Thy holy face

Are you kidding?  He cried his eyes out for sustenance and a change of diaper like any other kid.  Yeah, Jesus pooped his britches, too.  He stunk sometimes–no telling how many times that night.

Heavenly peace?  

I doubt anyone slept much that night.

Mary and Joseph probably comforted each other like do most couples in these situations.  If they had enough sense not to blame each other for not making the reservations, they were calming each other with, “It will be all right.  We’ll get through this.”  But surely with the added burden of their questions:  is this the way the Son of God is to come into the world?  God, shouldn’t you have rolled out a red carpet or something?  Are we really birthing Messiah here, or were those “angel dreams,” just, well, the fantasies of poor, crazy people? 

Shamefully, well-meaning human art can become so prevalent that it alters our understanding of historical events–so much so that it can shape the essential canon of spiritual belief.  Our understanding of the Advent of Christ should not be any more influenced by Christmas carols than should political debate by bumper stickers.  Sometimes these clipped summaries offer poor witness to the truth.

And the truth is:  Jesus was born poor and relatively alone.  As human as human gets.  But in spite of these awful circumstances, angels sang and shepherds worshiped and magi travelled bearing gifts.  That’s the beauty of the advent narratives.  It was, indeed, a holy night, a holy season.

But “holy” doesn’t mean calm or quiet.  Sometimes it means destruction and a legitimate reason to fight.  The night was holy because it was God’s night.  And in the hands of a couple faithful people, the night, with all its human sufferings, happened.  The “fully human” part of Jesus’ birth is what makes the rest of His story so important.  Precious little of the New Testament deals with the birth of Jesus once past these opening narratives.  But its pages teem with the truth that this human–yet “unique” son of God–was executed on a criminal’s cross, resurrected, exalted, and now sits at the right hand of the Father.  The Bible draws us to this latter picture.  The birth, correctly told, is the set up.

The birth of Jesus needs no romanticizing.  Nor does any biblical event need such polishing to protect us from feeling squeamish.  It is the holiness and perhaps even the mystical that arises from within the depths of the such utter humanity that remind us that God is God.  And that He is now “with us.”

Praise be to God–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

Merry Christmas.


© David P. Leach and Consequential Value, 2008

One Comment leave one →
  1. Marjie permalink
    December 27, 2008 9:10 pm

    And Mary was probably barely a teenager, although she expected no more for her life than early marriage and motherhood.
    I do wonder why we are so afraid to write new Christmas Carols rather than holding to ones that do not wholly connect with us today, except in a sentimental, ornamental sort of way.

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