While all things held in the middle silence and the night was halfway in its course, thine almighty Word, O Lord, came from heaven, from thy royal throne.
Translation by David Jones of the collect Dum Medium Silentium Tenerent Omnia
MIDNIGHT is the turning moment, poised between what has been and what will be. Between one pause and the next, the Lord Christ abandons his royalty for poverty. The Word comes, speechless and helpless. We begin to pray, still in the Advent mode of expectation.
“While all things held in the middle silence,” David Jones writes, choosing a literal rendering of the Latin that he translates for his preparatory clause, his scene-setting. In English, it falls on the ear as a strange mystery. What is “the middle silence”? How do we understand that verb “held”, conveying so economically the curious long tension that presages a great change? Is it kind as well as captivating; what is poised to spring?
Common Worship (in a translation that appears as the Proper for Christmas at evening prayer) renders the prayer’s first line “when peaceful silence lay over all”, privileging faithful serenity over astonishment at what is coming. Its translation will instead save its energy for the transformation that is proclaimed in the prayer’s main clause: “from yourroyal throne, O God, down from the heavens, leapt your almighty Word!” This baby is still royal, after all, born a child and yet a King. He is life and energy, breaking into a day that is ceasing on the stroke of midnight.
That is the surprise, though. Midnight is as much about loss as it is about gain; as much about being halfway through something (not to say heading down the other side of it), as it is about new beginnings.
“Tonight”, the Greek poet Sappho wrote, “I’ve watched the moon and then the Pleiades go down. The night is now half-gone; youth goes; I am in bed alone.” That is the sparse, bleak translation of Mary Barnard (if you want something fruitier, try A. E. Housman’s version), and it eloquently conveys the midway loneliness of the mortal transit.
Beyond Sappho’s wry shrug at the drab future, there is mortal terror: Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus shrieking words from Ovid, as his last night rushes towards its close: “Lente, lente currite noctis equi” (“Run slowly, slowly, you horses of the night!”).
Ovid wrote the words for joyful lovers warding off the light of morning, but Marlowe turns them to a darker usage. Midnight is the judgement time: “See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament,” Faustus cries.
It is never clear whether he is shut out from the gift he sees flowing across the midnight sky, or whether there is a perversity in his own will that drives him to repudiate its saving power. “One drop would save my soul,” he mourns, and turns away.
The thing that seems to me true and important about the David Jones translation of this ancient prayer is the space that it makes for a tension, even a dread, at the coming of a new and saving change.
Jones lettered the words in a way that made reading them deliberately difficult: the eye pauses, and the mind stumbles, toiling to understand that the jerky, delicate, enigmatically spaced letter-patterns are conveying something connected: the proclamation of God’s bright human life — small, steady, fragile — lighting the continuing darkness of mortal experience.
“The night was halfway in its course,” already heading for a particular destination: can anything about our muddled, self-thwarting lives ever change? Is the blood of the innocent always spent for futility? The answer to this question is fulfilled in the closing clause: “Thine almighty Word, O Lord, came from heaven, from thy royal throne.”
This Christmas midnight, many churches will be open. People who don’t much fancy church during the day will make the journey through and into the middle silence: the tension of wanting and wondering and hoping for things to be different and better from the way that they have been.
And, in some places, it won’t be all that silent at all, as the pubs empty, and the Christmas hats stream out, shouting and joking, in a crazy expectation of something amazing to light up the night. Few will be able to say quite what they want: a return to childhood wonder; a story of redemption through innocence; something to join up and make sense of the fleeting years of a short life?
Some of them will come inside the churches to see. What have they come to see? A candle lit, small and easily snuffed out, defying the darkness of the world and the perverse self-destructions of the human soul: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The Revd Dr Jessica Martin is Priest-in-Charge of Hinxton, Ickleton, Duxford, and Whittlesford, in the diocese of Ely.