Several years ago, Andrew Peterson wrote a wonderful song describing the first Christmas, called “Labor of Love.” It described the difficulty of that first Christmas and noted in its opening line, “It was not a silent night.” For Mary, that first Christmas was fraught with pain and disappointment.
Luke tells us that Caesar Augustus, emperor of Rome, decreed that a census be taken and that everyone return to the ancestral village of the head of the household. Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth, but Joseph’s ancestral village, his hometown, was Bethlehem. The Roman authorities did not care that Mary was nine months pregnant. She and Joseph were forced to make the eighty- to ninety-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which might have taken nine or ten days for a pregnant woman on foot. (Modern-day illustrations often show Mary riding on a donkey, but the Scriptures are silent on that point.) I walked portions of this journey several years ago. The first few days the terrain is flat. After that it’s uphill, traversing mountains and valleys for days. It’s likely that on the trip, tears were shed. If Mary was like any other expectant mother, she would have felt anxious and probably fearful. And then there were the questions that must have been running through her mind: Where will we stay? Who will help with the birth? Will my child survive?
Mary had been planning to have her child in her home, likely in a room that may have been added to her parents’ home in Nazareth. There was little to mitigate the pain of childbirth in that day except for the comfort of her mother, close friends, and a good midwife. It’s not hard to imagine Mary’s disappointment in being forced to travel to Bethlehem to have her child without any of those.
The disappointment got worse when they arrived in Bethlehem. First-century birthing practices in the best of circumstances were quite different from what we experience today. Here is a description of a modern birthing room from one hospital website:
Each room feels far more like a resort spa than a hospital. Relax in the whirlpool tub. Stretch out in a queen-size bed (for your partner to share, if you wish). Admire your newborn sleeping nearby in the in-room crib. Enjoy the attention of nurses who pamper the entire family. Pop your favorite CD in our entertainment center.
Now let’s look at Luke’s description of Mary’s birthing room:
The time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)
Luke doesn’t actually tell us that Mary was in a barn with sheep and goats, with the cattle “lowing.” He does tell us there was a manger, which was a feeding trough for animals. Where would this feeding trough have been? Early church tradition has it located in a stable or cave behind or under a house. (The word for that location, often referred to as “inn” in the Bible, is better translated as “guest room.”) In those days, people often brought their sheep in at the end of the day and kept their donkeys overnight to be tended. In other words, think of the place where Mary gave birth as a first-century parking garage. It was a far cry from CD players and queen-sized beds.
As to a “silent night,” the Scriptures don’t mention it. After all, on that first Christmas Mary gave birth! I don’t imagine it was silent. It would have been filled with noise, not just the sound of the donkeys but the clamor and cries surrounding childbirth.
Keep in mind that Mary was blessed by God, chosen as his handmaiden, and given the most important task any human being would ever have. Her child was the King of kings. She would be the mother of Jesus Christ. She was in the midst of the most profound thing God would do in the history of humankind. And Mary had to bring forth this child among animals, in a place she didn’t want to be. God does not promise that life will be easy, that all will be calm and bright. God promises that in the midst of the animal dung and the noise and the disappointment, he is at work!
Think about it: if all were calm and bright in the world, Christmas wouldn’t be necessary. Christmas came because the world is broken. We wrestle with sin and are plagued by tragedy. We are confused about what really matters and how we’re meant to live.
When referring to our sin, brokenness, hopelessness, and despair, the Bible often describes it in terms of darkness. Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:2: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16). John writes in his Gospel, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).
This idea that Christ brings light to the world was the inspiration for the date chosen by Christians to celebrate Christmas. No one knows the day Jesus was born. In ancient times, particularly among the Jews, it appears that birthdays may not have been celebrated. So when Christians contemplated when to celebrate Christ’s birth, they chose the winter solstice. Pagans already celebrated the event, which literally is the night when darkness is defeated: after months of the nights growing longer and the days getting shorter, the darkness is turned back; and from that night on, the days grow longer and the nights shorter. The heavens themselves seem to declare the truth of the gospel, “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
It was not a silent night for Mary, but she knew that something important was happening. God was working to transform the world. Her baby would change everything.