The Not So Silent Night

“Sleeping like a baby.”

Typically, this idiom is meant to conjure up images of quiet, peaceful slumber. Uninterrupted. Silent. Restful. Cuddly. Wake-up-feeling-really-refreshed. All night long.

Lies.

All lies.

Anyone who has ever actually had a baby realizes that what this idiom really means is exactly the opposite. No one actually wants to “sleep like a baby” if you know what a baby sleeps like. The dreaded 45-minute sleep cycle. Waking up crying every 3 hours to feed. Waking up every 1 hour if they have a cold. Frazzled parents wandering around drowsily and asking each other how often they are allowed to give ibuprofen before it becomes a “problem.” The shared longing with other parents of real babies for that magical “sleeping through the night” stage, only to find out that, clinically-speaking, “through the night” only means “5-6 hours at a time.”

“Like a baby.” Who came up with that anyhow?

Kind of like the Christmas song, Silent Night. What on earth were they thinking?

The Christmas pageant version

Lately I have been listening to Sufjan Stevens’ Silver and Gold Christmas album (or, rather, set of 5 albums), and I typically start with song 1 and listen all the way through. It makes for festive yet relaxed study music, if nothing else.

The only problem is that song 1 is Silent Night. As I have been working on extensive research into the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Luke (while listening to Sufjan), I have come to the point of disputing the factual accuracy of this song entirely.

Just another silent night in Bethlehem
Just another silent night in Bethlehem

The first stanza goes as follows:

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
Sleep in heavenly peace

The song leads us to visualize the night of the nativity in the same way that most Christmas pageants or children’s Christmas plays enact the scene: the shepherds are chilling out in the fields; an angel or two appears and gives them some good news of great joy for all the people etc.; and the shepherds hustle off to see the baby, who is softly cooing in a tidy manger. Mary is peaceful, and Jesus is tender, mild, and apparently already sleeping through the night.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Silent Night is sung to the slowest possible tune in the Christmas carol canon.

The real story: a not-so-silent night

I want to suggest that that first night was not at all Silent. In fact, the carol would better be titled, Night of Loud Apocalyptic Noises of the Visitation of a Panoply of Fiery Angels. 

Consider the following text from Luke’s account of the shepherds (2:9–13):

And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.

Note two important things about this scene that are often overlooked in the Christmas pageant version of the nativity:

  • The Glory (doxa) of the Lord shone around them. We tend to think that “glory” here must just mean some soft ambient light accompanying the angel. Maybe it was a little bright, but it wasn’t loud. However, I would argue that Luke’s use of doxa here is quite intentional. In the Septuagint, the word doxa, when used with respect to the LORD, nearly always refers to the manifestation of his presence. It translates the underlying Hebrew word kabod, which is the glory cloud (later called the shekinah) of Yahweh. And the doxa / kabod is not at all silent. The glory cloud of the Lord is what descends upon Mount Sinai in smoke, fire, and tremendously loud thunder in Exodus 19. The glory cloud is that which descends upon the newly built temple of Solomon, consuming the sacrifices and causing all the Israelites to bow down in reverent fear (2 Chr 7). The glory of Yahweh is what Isaiah saw in chapter 6, which was accompanied by thunderous sounds that shook the very foundations of the heavenly temple (not just the earthly one). The Glory of the Lord is not a silent night kind of thing.
  • The multitude of angels appeared. Over the past two weeks, our daughter Caroline has been hooked on two Christmas books we received. One of the books pictures the shepherd scene with 3 angels; the other with 6. I have tried to explain to her that there were probably many, many more angels, and that the author of the book just chose to represent them with 3 or 6. Whenever we turn to the page now, she points out all the blank spaces where they should have put more angels. The point is this: when Luke writes about the scene, he says that a στρατιᾶς (stratias) of angelic beings appeared. Typically, we think there were just a few angels who flanked the first one. In reality, στρατιᾶς means a great and numerous army, or a vast multitude. The only other time it shows up in the Bible is in Acts 7:42, when Luke is describing the vast multitude of stars in the heavens. So reconsider the scene. Imagine that one angel is loud enough and bright enough to be terrifying (Luke 2:9); think of the individual angels described in Revelation as possessing a “loud voice” (5:2, 7:2, 14:15), blowing trumpets and pouring out bowls of wrath and otherwise being astounding. Now multiply the loudness and grandeur of those individual angels by a thousand, or two thousand, or ten thousand (how many stars are there in the heavens?). That’s not a Silent Night.

Connecting to the pew

These details in Luke help us reshape the picture we have of the first Christmas, which has often been toned down by songs like Silent Night. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think it’s a bad song as a song. Keep on singing it; I am sure I will. But let us not forget that the first Christmas was anything but silent.

Screen shot 2013-12-18 at 3.57.21 PM

  • When Jesus came in the flesh, he was bringing the glory of the Lord to earth in permanent manifestation. Think about that: the little baby Jesus, whose arrival signaled the arrival of the “glory of the Lord,” was the fullness of God in human form (Col 2:9). In his coming, he was re-enacting – this time permanently – the visitation of the glory cloud of Yahweh on earth. If the filling of the temple with the glory of the Lord was magnificent, how much more was the coming down of the Second Person of the Trinity to “tabernacle” among us.
  • When Jesus came in the flesh, he was launching the final battle against the powers of darkness. What I like about the angelic host scene with the shepherds is how it so vividly anticipates the end of the story. Luke 21:27-28 describes how, when Jesus comes back, he will descend in a cloud (using Yahweh imagery again) with power and great glory (doxa again); other NT passages include references to the multitude of angels that will attend his second advent. Thus, what we have in the shepherd scene of Luke 2 is a foreshadowing of the end of the story. Just as the army of angels appeared with the glory of the Lord in Jesus’ first advent, when he came to deal with sin through his death and resurrection, so also will the angels appear with the glory of the Lord in Jesus’ second advent, when he will come to wage war against all the powers of evil and Satan in the great Day of the Lord. Just as the first advent was not so silent, neither will the second. We will not be singing the slow tune of Silent Night on that day, but rather the song of victory. For the baby who is God has grown up, and he will return a conquering king. And, in a very real way, the victory was already won in the manger; the victory song was already sung by the angelic host before an audience of shepherds.
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4 thoughts on “The Not So Silent Night”

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