Sleepless on Christmas Eve

By Mark D. Roberts

December 24, 2020

Scripture – John 1:14 (NRSV)

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.


Scripture reveals that the divine Word of God “became flesh and lived among us.” At Christmastime we celebrate the birth of the One who was both fully God and fully human. 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.


Christmas Eve and sleep didn’t mix when I was a boy. I remember bunking in with my younger brother, who slept soundly all night. I, on the contrary, was so excited about what was coming on Christmas Day that I hardly slept at all. I kept imagining the presents I would receive, hoping I might get what was on my list. As thrilling as this was, I remember feeling envious of my brother, wishing that I could sleep so that the time before Christmas morning would pass quickly.

A newborn baby yawningJump forward in time about a dozen years. I was in grad school, studying the New Testament and thinking lofty theological thoughts. As 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. I thought about “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, I recalled 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, I reflected on the fact that 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 my daughter was in third grade. Because our school district was short on funds, I ended up serving as the volunteer third grade music teacher. In December, I wanted to teach my students serious Hanukkah and Christmas songs, but I feared that religious lyrics would be unwelcome. So I taught my students a couple of Hanukkah songs in Hebrew and “Stille Nacht” in German (the original version of the song we call “Silent Night”). As I was studying the lyrics of “Stille Nacht,” I discovered something fascinating. The final line of the first stanza in German read, “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!” I knew enough German to realize that this 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 this discovery in mind, I revisited the lyrics of the English translation. I realized that I had misunderstood them for decades. The opening lines of the first stanza 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.

So, my adolescent criticism of “Silent Night” turned out to be based on my own misreading of the text. 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.

The theological point I discovered in graduate school is still right on, even if my interpretation of “Silent Night” was lacking. At Christmas we celebrate the fact that the divine Word of God became fully human in Jesus: not partly human, not sort of human, not human in appearance only, but truly human. We have every reason to believe that the baby Jesus cried plenty, just like other babies.

Why does this matter? It’s not just about making 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!


What memories do you have of Christmas Eve when you were a child?

How do you respond to the idea that the baby Jesus did lots of crying, just like other babies?

Do you find the full humanity of Jesus encouraging? Confusing? Troubling? Inspiring? Or . . . ?


Tonight, as you prepare to go to sleep, imagine what it was like when Jesus was born. What do you picture? What do you hear? What do you smell?


Lord Jesus, tonight we celebrate your birth. We marvel at the fact that you were fully human, even as you were fully God. We don’t really understand the miracle of the Incarnation, but we believe it. We are astounded by your willing to become human, to share in our weaknesses, and to bear our sin on the cross.

Thank you, Lord, for knowing what it’s like to be human. Thank you for knowing what pain and loss feel like. Thank you for knowing the delight of being loved and the joy of loving. Thank you, dear Lord, for understanding me, for knowing me thoroughly yet loving me utterly.

All praise, glory, and honor be to you, Jesus, the Word of God in human flesh, truly God and truly human! Amen.

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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: In the Beginning was the Word (John 1:1-18)

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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