(Part Two in the Christmas Carols series)
The story behind Silent Night is familiar to many of us, but I needed to brush up on my facts. Turns out, it started in 1816 in a small Austrian village called Oberndorf when a pastor named Joseph Mohr wrote the simple words as a poem. Of course, the words were in German, and the poem was entitled Stille Nacht.
Two years later on Christmas Eve, the organ in St. Nicholas Church (Pastor Mohr’s church) broke down just before the Christmas Mass. A tragedy! Determined that the Mass should not be without music, Mohr gave the two-year-old poem he had written to his organist and friend, Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber must have been one speedy composer. He immediately wrote the melody and arranged it for two voices, choir and guitar – just in time for the midnight service.
The two writers of the carol thought they were simply doing something to get through a difficult situation. But almost two hundred years later, Silent Night is still the most performed and recorded Christmas song in history.
A wonderful story about the song comes out of World War I. On Christmas Eve, fighting was actually suspended on many of the European fronts while people turned on their radios to hear Austrian opera star, Ernestine Schumann Heink, sing Stille Nacht. Ms. Heink was not only an international celebrity, but the mother of one son fighting for the Germans and another son fighting for the Allies. Parents, can you imagine the turmoil in her heart or her longing for peace? Her beautiful rendition of this song had the power to bring a few moments of peace to a very troubled world.
The song itself represents an event orchestrated by God himself to bring heavenly peace to earth. Was that Bethlehem stable truly silent? It’s doubtful, what with the crowds, the animals, the shepherds, and the angel choirs. But a larger sentiment rings true, that of the little baby who came to bring freedom to human hearts.
When that baby grew up, he said a most curious thing to his disciples. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10)
Whatever did he mean? Was Jesus advocating violence?
When you look at the larger context, you see that he was quoting from the Old Testament prophet Micah. He wanted his disciples to understand that Jesus divides the world into two camps: those who follow him, and those who do not. Following Jesus in his original Jewish society would not bring peace to a family, but might even split it up, and they needed to be prepared. However, he never tells his followers to wage war on everyone else, and certainly not on one’s family. If anything, this split would provide further opportunities for his grace to be demonstrated through us.
Silent or not, nighttime or not, it truly was a new day – with the dawn of redeeming grace.