Was the First Christmas Night Really So "Silent"? Revisiting a Scholastic Debate


Objection 1. It seems that the evening our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was born could not have been so "silent" after all.
We know that the cattle were "lowing," whatever that means (we're just theologians, not farmers; theology is queen of the sciences, not animal husbandry) and this noise was sufficient to awaken the Christ child from slumber.

Objection 2. Further, an infant roused on the middle of a cold night by barnyard animals must have been disturbed enough to cry; I mean, cows are scary enough in movies, but imagine if one were breathing down your neck because you're occupying her feeding trough.

Objection 3. Further, we learn from the classic spiritual that angels' feet make a "shuffling" sound and, if their feet make noise, mutatis mutandis, surely the noise of wings flapping as the angels dive-bombed and encircled the creche must have been even louder.

Objection 4. Further, an entire host of angels with flapping wings would have made a stupendous noise. (You know, the Hell's Angels often drive Harleys, which tend to be loud indeed. Relevance, you ask? Well, even a Scholastic has to throw in a non sequitur now and then, to keep the Zwinglians appeased.)

Objections 5 Further, neither the weekend haunts of shepherds nor delivery rooms are known to be particularly quiet, and if the two elements were combined in one location, one imagines there would have been a cacophonous roar.

On the contrary, It is a commonplace of all the relevant Christmas hymns -- "Stille Nacht," "Stille, Stille, Stille" and virtually all the carols with "Stille" in the title, which are legion -- the night of our Lord's nativity was "silent" while everything around was "calm" and "bright."

I answer that, The tradition of the church gives ample and unanimous testimony that all of creation greeted the incarnation of the Son of God with an awe-filled and respectful hush. In addition to a harmony of the hymnody, this is attested in countless greeting cards and living nativity scenes, wherein animals and people normally at each other's throats or, at the very least, braying and bantering incessantly, in this special case can be seen intently staring at the Christ child in rapt attention. As Philips Brooks reminds us, the little town of Bethlehem lay "still." Moreover, "How silently, how silently the wondrous gift was given."

It is our contention that "The Little Drummer Boy" is a wretched calumny created and perpetuated by the Averrorists to discredit the faith of the church and disturb the faithful. And as for this preposterous notion that "the ox and lamb kept time" -- Non possum ego non etiam!

Reply Obj. 1. The "lowing" of the cattle may have been so low -- or of such a low frequency -- that it would not have registered in any sound recording equipment, should there have been any on site, which presumably there was not -- that TV show with the time-travelling kids and the robot notwithstanding.

Reply Obj. 2. As the children's carol confirms, the Christ child "made" no crying -- though as the Creator of the universe he might presumably have made anything cry he wished, including the rocks or clay sparrows manufactured for that purpose.

Reply Obj. 3. If one grants that lowing may be a kind of subsonic purring that did awaken Christ, he would have "made" no crying as his imperturbable god-consciousness suffused his every waking moment (So Schleiermacher).

Reply Obj. 4. Another carol confirms that the nativity occurred "in the bleak midwinter" and "snow was falling, snow on snow, snow on snow" (so presumably, that's a lot of snow: blizzard levels -- which might seem implausible, on the face of it, given that this happened in Palestine -- except when one considers that, in view of the other details of this story, the intrinsic implausibility of a blizzard kind of pales by comparison). This much snow likely would mute most noises; furthermore, as one expects the municipal authorities of Bethlehem would have lacked the vehicles and equipment necessary for proper snow removal, most townspeople would have been stuck indoors anyway.

Reply Obj. 5. Zechariah was struck dumb by the angel Gabriel upon learning Elizabeth would conceive a son. Joseph, after he learned that his betrothed was with child, resolved to put her away "quietly." Likewise, the blessed virgin developed a preternatural capacity to ponder things "in her heart," rather than blather them all over Galilee on social media. The magi slipped out of the country by a back road -- hastily and at night, one imagines.

One lesson the infancy narratives teach is that human agents tend to say the wrong thing at the wrong time when deep, mysterious events are afoot. The moral is that, unless one happens to be an angel or doing something fairly innocuous like reciting a canticle, one is well advised to zip it. Really, at the end of the day, the best thing I can come up with here is the stuff about snow (see previous reply). Did I mention there sure must have been a boatload of it? To be more precise, three ships full.



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