When I close my eyes and imagine the first Christmas, the one with Mary and Joseph, certain images come to my mind. I see the couple huddled in a stable. I see the baby in a manger surrounded by animals. I see wise men, shepherds, and a star. Since there is a star it is always dark, the middle of the night.
Where did these images, especially the night, come from? They come from Christian art and hymnody.
During Christmas we sing some of the most famous Christian hymns, we know them by heart.
Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright …
O holy night! the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of the dear Savior’s birth …
Not only is it night out when Jesus is born but our artistic and hymn tradition tells us that it is at midnight, the middle of the night, that salvation was born. Thus the wonderful hymn, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,”
It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth To touch their harps of gold:
‘Peace on earth, good will to men, From heav’n’s gracious King;’
The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing.
The classic hymn “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” that I learned through Manheim Steamroller years ago, tell us it was midnight.
Lo, how a rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung,
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came a flow’ret bright
Amid the cold of winter
When half-spent was the night.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
This Rose that I have in mind.
And with Mary we behold it,
The Virgin Mother so sweet and so kind.
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior
When half-spent was the night.
These hymns, and classical Christian art, bear witness to the Christian tradition that Jesus was born at midnight. For many modern Protestants, especially Evangelicals, this is a complete mystery. The Gospels are silent on the timing of Jesus’s birth. Luke tells us that the angels appeared to the shepherds in the night and that Jesus was born “this day” but does not suggest the time of either the birth or when the shepherds found the Holy Family.
So where does the deeply rooted worship and artistic tradition arise that Jesus was born not only at night but midnight? It comes from a book that many Evangelical Christians do not have in their New International Version of the Holy Bible.
But for centuries disciples of Christ read the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. Then as Christianity spread into the African and European West the Bible used was the Latin Vulgate. In western Christianity the Vulgate was the “Authorized Version” for over a thousand years before vernacular translations became popular. So for nearly 1500 years Christians, in their Greek and Latin Bibles, heard a book called The Wisdom of Solomon read in worship. This book was also part of the Bibles of the Reformation, like Martin Luther’s Bible, the Geneva Bible and the King James Version. From Wisdom, many came to believe that God’s Word was Incarnate at midnight. Thus in Wisdom of Solomon chapter 18.14-15 we read the following,
“For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and the night in its swift course was now HALF GONE,
your all-powerful word leaped from heaven,
from the royal throne, into the midst of the
land that was doomed …”
The Wisdom of Solomon says that God’s “all-powerful word” at midnight “leaped from heaven” from the very throne of God and came to the world, a land that was “doomed.”
This passage in its literary context refers to the Exodus from Egypt. But the Church Fathers read Wisdom the same way the Gospel of Matthew did Hosea 11.1 (which also applies an Exodus text to Jesus), that is as a typological prophecy of the Incarnation. It does after all speak of the “logos.” The eighth century biblical scholar Rabanus Maurus is representative in how Wisdom was understood by Christians for centuries (Rabanus simply assumes Wisdom is Scripture).
“It says that at midnight, almighty God made his word descend from heaven, from the royal throne, like a ruthless champion in the middle of the land of slaughter, to powerfully carry out the judgment of death on the godless. What is the word of the Lord if not the Son of God, of whom John says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ through whom everything was made? … It must be understood, then, that this word, in virtue of the evangelical ministry … now saves the multitude of believers through the waters of baptism, at the same time destroying the huge army of spiritual enemies.”
Christians for centuries read Wisdom as a prophecy of the incarnation of Jesus, the Living logos of God. The “word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne” at “midnight” to dwell in “the midst of the land of doom.” The critical moment of God’s salvation, the Incarnation, took place at midnight. That is why Christmas “mass” has been at midnight and the tradition continued in Protestant hymnody. So our art and our Christmas carols say
“It came upon a MIDNIGHT clear …
That Jesus was born.
The traditions passed on by artists and hymn writers were the ones they had learned themselves in what they believed was Scripture. The sources of those traditions are lost to modern Evangelicals and Restorationists today but the traditions remain but are a mystery. So though many have probably never heard of it, the Wisdom of Solomon influences us to this day. It shows up each Christmas.