14The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)
When I was a young boy, I didn’t sleep well on Christmas Eve. I was so excited about what was coming on Christmas Day that I hardly slept at all. I kept thinking about the presents I might get, hoping to get something I wished for.
A few years ago, I was reflecting on John 1:14, which reveals the miracle of the Incarnation – the Word became flesh and lived among us – I remembered the lyrics of Christmas carols that seemed to downplay the full humanity of Jesus. For instance, “Away in a Manger” with its line, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Wait a minute! If Jesus was truly human, then of course He made some crying. Next, recall the opening stanza of “Silent Night”: “Silent night, holy night. All is calm. All is bright, ‘round yon virgin Mother and child. Holy infant, tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” Again, if Jesus was a flesh and blood baby, then the holy night really wasn’t that silent. There wasn’t much sleeping in heavenly peace for the holy family, not to mention the animals who were hunkering down in the stable.
My crankiness about these beloved Christmas carols continued for many years until I read about “Stille Nacht,” the original German version of “Silent Night”). I discovered something fascinating about the lyrics of “Stille Nacht”. The final line of the first stanza in German read, “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!” In German, the line was not a statement, but an imperative. “Stille Nacht” wasn’t claiming that the baby Jesus was sleeping. Rather, it was urging Him to go to sleep!
With that in mind, I invite you to revisit the lyrics of the English translation. Perhaps like me, you have misunderstood them for decades. The opening lines describe a scene in the indicative: “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright, ‘round yon virgin Mother and Child.” But the last lines faithfully follow the German original’s imperative: “Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” This is not a claim that the baby Jesus was sleeping. Rather, it an imperative, urging him to go to sleep. It’s exactly the sort of thing that parents of newborn infants say when their babies are crying at night, often with desperation and many parental tears. The song wasn’t claiming that Jesus was sleeping silently. Rather, it was urging him – begging him? – to get some sleep, perhaps so that His parents and the hosting animals might sleep too.
At Christmas time we celebrate the fact that the divine Word of God became fully human in Jesus: not in part, not sort of, not in appearance, but truly human. Jesus was both fully God and fully human. We have every reason to believe that the baby Jesus cried plenty, just like other babies. Because Jesus was human, He was able to take the sin of humanity upon Himself. He is a Savior who not only delivers us, but also understands us. He knows what it’s like to hurt, to grieve, to be rejected, to weep. In this difficult time of history, how good to know that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
Why does this matter? It’s not just an important theological point. It’s also about being in relationship with a Savior who really knows what it’s like to be us, One who was born as a real baby, One who no doubt struggled with sleepless nights, much as we do. The Incarnation means that Jesus was able to save us and that He also understands us. He is indeed Emmanuel, God with us, for real! Now that’s something to celebrate this Christmas. Even better than getting presents on Christmas morning!
Tonight, as you lay your head on your pillow, “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!” May you sleep in heavenly peace!
Thank you, dear Lord, for understanding me,
for knowing me thoroughly yet loving me utterly.