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Before I begin, let me tell you that I hate what I am about to do. That’s because few things exasperate me more than the people who Well, actually Christmas songs. True, there was no innkeeper in the gospel Nativity accounts. We don’t know how many wise men there were, but we know they weren’t there at the same time as the shepherds. But nobody wants to be under the mistletoe with the guy arguing about how much Mary knew.

You no doubt know that the idea of a “Silent Night” is Victorian sentimentalism more than biblical reality. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” assumes that a baby’s cry is a sin rather than part of the good human nature the Son of God assumed. We shouldn’t stop singing those songs, but at the same time, maybe we should ponder exactly why the screams from the manger really do matter for us.

The Gospels reveal that the Nativity scene was in the middle of a war zone. Joseph was trekking to the City of David with Mary to participate in the very thing—a census—for which God had repudiated David himself. And he was doing so at the command of a pagan Roman government occupying the throne of David, seeming to invalidate the promise God made to his people. The puppet bureaucrat warming that seat—King Herod—was so enraged by the Davidic prophecies that would threaten his position that he, like Pharaoh of old, ordered all the baby boys of the region to be killed.

This mass murder was, Matthew reveals, a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15; Matt. 2:18). The little town of Bethlehem was, like the Hebrew territory within ancient Egypt, a place of wailing and lamentation.

In the midst of all of this, an infant squirmed in swaddling clothes. And had you been there, you no doubt would have heard not just crying but screaming from that manger.

Part of the reason it’s hard for us to think this way is because it’s difficult for us to imagine the mystery of the Incarnation—that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14) in every state of human life—from embryo to adulthood. But a big part of our missing this is that we don’t see how crying is an essential aspect of both our created and our redeemed humanity. As J. Gresham Machen, almost a century ago now, put it in his defense of the virgin birth: “To that doctrine it is essential that the Son of God should live a complete human life upon this earth. But the human life would not be complete unless it began in the mother’s womb.”

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At some time or other, most of us convert accidentally and haphazardly to a kind of Zen Buddhism. Without thinking about it, we assume that the goal of the Christian life is that of a guru leading us to an introspective and internal tranquility, to detachment from longing into quietude.

The gospel, though, comes with the imagery of the loudest and most tumultuous moments of any life: birth and death. You must be born again, Jesus told us (John 3:3). We must take up our crosses and follow him to die in order to live, he revealed.

That reality is bound up with one of the most important images the Bible uses for the experience of faith—that of the scream.

The apostle Paul wrote that the Spirit prompts those of us who are joined to Christ to “cry ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom. 8:15). In fact, Paul wrote, the experience of the Abba cry is the Spirit of God’s Son, crying out from our hearts (Gal. 4:6). The life of the Spirt means, he argued, that we join the groaning of the universe around us, a groaning that he calls “the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22).

For Paul, prayer is much less like the carefully crafted prayers Jesus criticized from the esteemed religious leaders around him and much more like an inarticulate groping for words, through which the Spirit himself “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26, ESV).

That Abba cry is a callback to a specific moment in the life of Jesus—a prayer that is not a silent night but a wail of anguish. Looking at the cup of wrath before him, crucifixion under the curse of the law, Jesus cried out, “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36) in anguish, his sweat like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

The disciples with him, however, no crying they made, asleep as they were on the hay. For them, all was calm, all was bright. That was the problem, not the solution.

The cross was itself a callback to those days in the manger. Jesus, in the horror of execution, screamed out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). This was a lyric to an ancient song, meant to evoke the whole—kind of like how if I were to say, “It came upon a midnight clear,” most of you would know I was talking about Christmas.

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Jesus was here quoting Psalm 22, a song of David. The entirety of the psalm speaks prophetically to the fullness of what happens at Golgotha, “the place of the skull”—from the experience of forsakenness (v. 1) to thirst (v. 15) to pierced hands and feet, the lack of broken bones, and soldiers gambling for clothes (vv. 16–18). The song, though, is not just one of lament but one of hope in the faithfulness of God to his promises.

In the same psalm, David also sings that he learned to face the horrors of death—as a baby. “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me to trust you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (vv. 9–10). The dependence of birth and infanthood was tied, David sang, to the experience of the entire people of God: “In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried out and were saved” (vv. 4–5).

And as Jesus looked out from the cross, he could see the very one who had swaddled him back at the manger—his mother.

Biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists all tell us that the interplay between a baby crying and a parent’s response are foundational to the way they attach to one another. An infant experiences an existential need—for food, for protection, for reassurance—and cries out, finding that, when all is the way it’s supposed to be, the child is not alone in the world; someone who loves him hears him. That’s true in the life cycle for human beings because, ultimately, it’s the even more primal longing we all are created to follow—to trust a fatherly God to feed us and to protect us.

Jesus was the firstborn of the new humanity. Joined with our common human nature, he lived out the life of trust and faith from which we had been broken. When he teaches us to pray “our Father” and “give us this day our daily bread” and “deliver us from evil,” he is telling us what, in his humanity, he was taught from the manger of Bethlehem onward.

Christ calls us to once again be as little children—dependent and vulnerable, attached and loved—not by cooing and gurgling but by screaming and groaning. And, like Jesus, even in those loud cries and tears, we are heard (Heb. 5:7).

All is not always calm. All is not always bright. But because the manger and the cross are our story too, a not-so-silent night is a holy night all the same.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.