a not-so-silent night

The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes.

But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

It wasn’t my cheeriest Christmas thought. But pacing the back of church with my baby screaming in my arms, wailing and wrenching whether I put him down or picked him up, reeling back and smashing his head against my own, all I could do was roll my eyes while the congregation sang “Silent Night.”

Give me a break, I grumbled. A silent newborn Jesus?

Perfection is annoying in the face of a tired toddler, anything but tender and mild.

. . .

Childhood is full of tears. Rare – if not impossible – is the hour that goes by without a cry. So every single day since my first was born, I have heard wails and dried tears. Tears for falls and fights, tears for tantrums and tiredness. Crying defines childhood more than any emotion. When else in life do we wail in public with reckless abandon?

So perhaps it’s because my second throws more tantrums than my first: crying in the car seat, wailing in the high chair, screaming on the changing table. Or perhaps it’s because this December has been dark with sorrow, plastered with pictures of public grief. But this Christmas I find myself frustrated with the image of a Christ child who didn’t cry.

Crying is our first form of communication. It is how we learn to be human. We raise our voice and let feeling burst forth in the hopes that someone will respond.

It must have been the same for Christ.

. . .

Jesus wept. It’s the shortest sentence in the Bible. But it carries a depth of emotion: the love and compassion Christ had for his friend. Jesus’ tears at the death of Lazarus were not a moment of weakness, a wimpy stumble or a private sniffle. They were an outpouring of grief, wet and wailing proof of his deepest humanity.

Crying comes from a desire for things to be differently than they are. As a child, we cry out of our desire to have a snack or a toy or to go to sleep when we are too tired. As an adult, we cry out of our desire for a situation or relationship to be changed. Christ’s crying for Lazarus meets us there, in that most awful human moment of losing someone we love. And since we know how to be as an adult because of how we were as children, Jesus must have wailed as a baby, to be able to cry as he grew.

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Crying makes us human. The bursting forth of emotion when facing the most basic needs of existence, when dealing with the rawest of our desires. We cry not just for food and drink, shelter and warmth, but in the hopes that if we cry out, someone will respond. Crying teaches us comfort, dependence, compassion and humility.

And even though Emmanuel means that Christ was fully divine from the start, the mystery’s flip side insists that he was always human, too. That he could not have been immune from the tears at the heart of the human condition. That like us he cried for warmth and food and sleep and love. That his first night in human flesh was not free from tears.

. . .

Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy infant so tender and mild.

Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

Despite being Christmas, yesterday was full of tears like every other day. I don’t remember which cry I confronted, whether the tears over the stolen toy or the forbidden cookie or the forced trip to the potty. I don’t remember which child I comforted, whether it was the oldest who wails “I feel sad!” when tears spring to his eyes or the youngest whose frustrated frown quivers wordlessly before he dissolves.

But yesterday I remember holding a child close to my chest, his tears darkening my shirt as he sobbed. And as he struggled to breathe through his heaving, I felt Christmas songs of quiet nights and silent babes slip away into a darker, wetter image: a sweat-soaked girl in a filthy stable filled with the piercing shrieks of a newborn.

And I realized that what matters most about Christmas is not that Jesus didn’t cry, but that he did.

4 thoughts on “a not-so-silent night

  1. I love the imagery of the line, “a sweat-soaked girl in a filthy stable filled with the piercing shrieks of a newborn.” You write in such a vivid, stripped down fashion. It is very truth revealing for me.

  2. Absolutely! This year, more than ever before, I’ve been realizing how much we’ve sanitized the Christmas story and thus robbed it of its real meaning. All the focus on babies distracts us from the whole point, which is Incarnation. The baby is just one teeny tiny little part of Incarnation. Incarnation is about *us* being joined with God, and about God showing us how to use our imperfect bodies to become more perfect. When people write sentimental sappy words focusing on angels and stars and babies sleeping, it misses the whole point. I think maybe that’s why Joy to the World is the best Christmas song of all, even though it wasn’t written for Christmas at all, but for Christ the King.

    (Soapbox alert…..)

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