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Hymns are often concise statements of good theology (all the theology I knew until my twenties came from Charles Wesley’s hymns, and I have not found anything since which explains the subject better), but they are not, of course, statements of historical accuracy. I suspect that the ‘holy night’ was far from ‘silent’. The Gospels simply tell us that Mary gave birth and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, but the second century Protoevangelium of St James provided the early Christians with much more information to satisfy their curiosity, including the story of the midwife – Salome – whose had was withered by her doubting Mary’s virginity, and healed by the birth of Jesus, with which she assisted. As with all non-Canonical sources, we can take or leave this one, but its existence, and popularity (about 130 manuscripts survive in Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Arabic, Irish and Latin versions, the earliest from about the fourth century, and the majority around the tenth), like its longevity (it was in wide circulation for longer than the Protestant churches have been in existence, if one wants to get a sense of time), testify to the desire of Christians to fill in the gaps in the Gospel accounts.

We cannot know more than the little we know, but even from that, the idea that the nativity was a quiet time is unlikely. Whether the Holy Family was in a ‘stable’, or that part of the house where the animals were kept, there would have been frantic activity as Mary’s hour came, and the legend of Salome captures the sense of contemporaries that there would have been older women there to help the younger one; it was not customary for men to help at the birth, and it is improbable that Mary did it all herself. The animals would have been disturbed by the noise and the activity, and so, in all likelihood, would the household. Then would have come the joy which the successful birth of a child brings – that mixture of relief that the birth has taken place and that mother and child are well, combined with the sense of wonder which new life always brings.

I am not discounting the ancient traditions that Our Lady was spared the pangs of birth, but for me they tread too close to gnostic denial of the reality of the flesh. A fit and healthy young woman might well have come through the birthing process fairly easily, but she would have been tired. Of course she and Joseph knew something no one else involved knew – until, that is, the shepherds turned up, followed, later, by the Magi. If Mary just wanted to nurse her baby and sleep, she would have been denied her wishes; just the first sign that her life would no longer be her own. The night, like the rest of her life, was far from silent.

And for us, as we approach the ending of our Advent Vigil? Perhaps we, too, suffer a little from not enough silence? Here, the words of the late Sir John Betjeman come to mind:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Nor can anything compare with that One Great Truth. May the peace of the Lord be with us all at this time.