Not So Silent Night!

Silent night… really? I’ve loved singing the beautiful Christmas carol ever since I could first lisp the words, “thilent night.” An Austrian priest, Father Joseph Mohr wrote the words in 1816, and two years later Franz Gruber composed the melody and sang it with guitar accompaniment at a Christmas Eve service. Without doubt, it is a lovely piece of music. However, recently I’ve begun questioning the line of thought that runs through the song. Was it really a quiet peaceful night when Jesus was born? I’m not so sure.

I remember one of my Bible college professors explaining that the word “manger,” described a ditch, probably on the outskirts of a town, which served as a feeding trough for animals. Livestock wasn’t usually kept in nice, comfortable barns or stables as it is today.

So I picture a teenage girl and her not-much-older fiancé, bedding down on the edge of Bethlehem, wondering when a donkey or sheep would come along and try to reclaim their dining spot. I imagine Mary and Joseph’s conversation. Was she begging him to find some other, cleaner, more private place? Was he, in exasperation, pleading with her to understand that there simply was no other place?

And the labor? Even the most stoic of laboring mothers usually emits at least a few moans and groans as her baby travels the birth path. And many moms actually scream with pain. What about Mary? Did God grant her a pain-free labor and delivery in exchange for her willingness to carry His Son? Or did He allow her to suffer as other women do, to push their children into the world? I wonder.

What about Joseph? I doubt that he was silent through the whole ordeal. He was probably trying to encourage, coach and soothe Mary. Or, perhaps he had managed to find a village midwife who took charge of the delivery, barking out orders to Mary, and leaving him to pace nervously nearby.

Of course there was the hubbub that took place out in the fields, when the angel of the Lord and his cohorts showed up. The Bible account makes it sound quite loud, with the angel’s verbal reassurance to the terrified herdsmen followed by a multitude shouting “Glory to God in the highest!”

I imagine much discussion between those men as they hurried to Bethlehem… “Did we really hear and see angels? Were we just dreaming? We can at least check it out. If there’s no baby, maybe we were just hallucinating.” And so the shepherds hunted down and found the baby. These were the “low-lifes” of that culture… not the typical guests, new parents would want wandering into their nursery. They were rough, uneducated and probably carried a distinct aroma of sheep and dirt and body odor. Did they jostle each other to get a better view? People instinctively speak more quietly around babies, and even men raise the pitch of their voices. I have to smile as I envision those uncouth homeless guys addressing the newborn with squeaky, high-pitched “baby-talk.”

In all the Christmas pageants, the shepherds always arrive silently. They say nothing as they fall on their knees before the manger. Nor do Joseph and Mary say anything. But, if I were in their shoes, I’d be talking… “Who are you? What are you doing here?” “We were just watching sheep… you wouldn’t believe what happened… we’re still wondering whether we were just dreaming” “I know we’ve taken over one of your feeding stations… but please don’t force us to leave! We’ve just had a baby!” “The angel guy said a Savior was born tonight in a manger… is this kid the Messiah?”

And between them lay the little Lord Jesus… and no crying He makes? Somehow I figure any baby tucked “away in a manger,” with a theological discussion going on above him, would make some sounds… at least a few grunts and grimaces as He tried to curl into a comfortable position, or a hungry squeal or two.

No, I don’t think it was a silent night when Jesus was born… I think it was a normal noisy night on planet earth, full of voices and commotion, full of difficulties and fears and pain. But in the midst of the mayhem of human existence, God showed up. And He does the same in my hectic, crazy, stress-filled world today. And when He does, I am calmed, I am quieted, and my troubled heart is stilled. When I make my way to the Savior, even the mundane becomes holy. Somehow when I surrender my chaos to Him, He calms it and He gives me a glimmer of bright hope. Somehow only Jesus is able to silence the bedlam in my soul.

So… I’m thinking… perhaps those Austrian guys got it right after all.