Not A Silent Night:
Mary Looks Back to Bethlehem
by Adam Hamilton
–Review by Teri Hyrkas
December has arrived and with it comes the season of Advent. Each week, the excitement, elation, and joyful preparations increase for Christmas — and apprehensions, disappointments, and fatigue related to the holiday increase as well. Are you feeling as if you have already failed to plan enough quiet time to prepare spiritually for the approaching holy day? Take a deep breath and relax. Give yourself some grace. Adam Hamilton in his book, Not A Silent Night: Mary Looks Back to Bethlehem, suggests that even though the beloved carol tells us that Christmas was a “Silent Night,” even Mary, the mother of Jesus, didn’t have much peace and quiet at the time of the Nativity.
In Not A Silent Night (Abingdon Press, 2014), author and pastor Adam Hamilton has produced a book that is a meditation on Christmas as seen through the eyes of Mary. Even as Hamilton acknowledges that the Protestant Church is cautious about some of the traditions that have attached themselves to the life of Mary, he states that her place in Christianity is essential and exemplary: “No one was closer to Jesus than Mary. No one shaped his life more than she did. No one knew him better nor loved him more.”
In an innovative twist, Hamilton presents his story of Mary in a back-to-front timeline. Rather than beginning his book with Mary’s central role in the Christmas story, Hamilton starts at the end of Mary’s life. Because there is nothing in the Protestant Bible about how her life ended, Hamilton includes brief descriptions of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox beliefs and practices concerning how and when Mary completed her earthly journey. Though there are significant differences between Christian churches on this subject, Hamilton emphasizes the central tenet that is held in common with the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox religions: the resurrection of the dead. Hamilton maintains that surely Mary knew she would see her son again at the end of her days on earth, and he asserts that “Christmas is inextricably linked to Easter.”
As he moves from her final days to occurrences that appear earlier in Mary’s history, Hamilton focuses on what he calls a “defining moment” that marked Mary’s life. This event also happens to be the only story in the gospels about Jesus’ adolescent years. It is an occasion that tells of a miscommunication between Jesus and his parents, and it illustrates the real, heartfelt, and unavoidable struggles that come with raising children.
Mary’s story of family anxiety as told in the gospel of Luke takes place during the biggest religious festival in the Jewish tradition, Passover. Hamilton writes that in Jesus’ lifetime, the early part of the first century, close to three hundred thousand Jews traveled to Jerusalem for this high holy day. It was after the completion of Passover, on the first day of the long trek back to Nazareth, that Mary and Joseph realized Jesus was not with their group — he was lost among the many thousands of people in and around Jerusalem. Hamilton says:
“Joseph and Mary hurried back to Jerusalem. Their sense of panic grew as they searched the city… for three days. They went from house to house. He wasn’t there. They went to everyone they knew. He wasn’t there. They checked among the sick and injured. He wasn’t there. Do you feel what Mary was feeling?…” Hamilton draws a parallel between this event in Mary’s life, which should have been a happy family occasion, and our own expectations for Christmas: “We have this image of Christmas and of life that it’s supposed to be easy, peaceful, beautiful and serene. Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Life does have those moments but it also has periods of grief and pain and hardship.“ There is a happy ending to this story of Jesus being lost in Jerusalem but not until a sharp and uncomfortable confrontation takes place. Hamilton points out that the teenage years are not always calm and pain free — even in the Holy Family.
As Hamilton continues his musings in Not A Silent Night, he asks several questions: Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of Jesus? What is humility? What is grace? How do these attributes relate to Mary? What does the prophet Simeon mean when he tells Mary that, “a sword will pierce your own soul.”?(Luke 2:35 NRSV) Could Simeon’s words about Jesus have prepared Mary for Jesus’ crucifixion? These meditative questions offer opportunities to take a deeper look at the meaning of Christmas and Mary’s role in it.
As he closes his reflections on Mary and the Nativity, Hamilton reminds us that almost nothing about the First Noel was either easy or silent: The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem while nine-months pregnant had to be extremely difficult for Mary. The search for a safe place to deliver her baby must have been exhausting. Rather than being a calm, quiet interlude, Mary’s labor and delivery of her son certainly involved a good deal of pain and no little noise. How are we then to think of Christmas? If it didn’t bring calm and tranquility to the world, what did Christ’s birth bring?
Hamilton closes out Not A Silent Night, Mary Looks Back to Bethlehem by offering stories and insight to assist the reader in merging the ancient Christmas story into the present-day reality of our busy, noisy lives. Even its short length, just one hundred and thirtytwo pages (only five chapters), helps to make Not A Silent Night an accessible, encouraging read and an ideal book to help celebrate the season in a meaningful way. Happy Advent!