Silent Night, Holy Night

Luke 2:16-18 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

On a cold Christmas Eve in the year 1818, a young priest named Joseph Mohr quickly walked from his home in the small town in Oberndorf, Austria to the neighboring village of Amsdorf. He was carrying a piece of paper – a poem he had written two years earlier.

He made his way to the schoolhouse, walked up the stairs and knocked on the door of the second floor apartment. He was greeted by his friend, Franz Gruber, the schoolmaster in Amsdorf and also the church organist.

Father Mohr asked his friend to help him put his poem to music. He wanted a new Christmas hymn for the mass that evening. There was a catch, though. He wanted it played on guitar, not the organ.

Over the years, many have speculated why. Some say the organ was broken. Others say it was because of Father Mohr’s love for the guitar. Whatever the reason, Gruber quickly wrote a melody and guitar chords for the new Christmas carol.

That night at the Midnight Mass, Father Mohr and Franz Gruber, quietly backed by the choir and accompanied by a single guitar, sang the new hymn for the first time. It was called “Stille Nacht.” You and I know it as “Silent Night.”

“Silent Night” has since been translated into over 140 languages and sung in every corner of the world. This powerful little carol has so worked its way into people’s hearts all over the world that it isn’t really Christmas unless you sing it at least once, preferably on Christmas Eve. December 24, 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of this treasured Christmas hymn.

Its popularity contrasts sharply with its humble beginnings. “Silent Night” scholar, Bill Eagan, once wrote: “Perhaps this is part of the miracle of Silent Night. The words flowed from the imagination of a modest curate. The music was composed by a musician who was not known outside his village. There was no celebrity to sing at its world premiere. Yet its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, conquering the hearts of people everywhere.”

It is not a joyous, fast-paced carol like Handel’s “Joy to the World.” Nor theologically-rich like Charles Wesley’s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Nor does it have a complex tune like “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

Rather, “Silent Night” is quiet and reflective, calling us to meditate on the scene. It is the ambiance conveyed by both the gentle words and melody that create from this carol an oasis of peace.

That quiet ambiance is also conveyed in the Adoration of the Shepherds by Matthias Stom (c. 1635-1640). The painting was completed over 100 years before Joseph Mohr penned the words of “Silent Night.” Still, the imagery of the carol is portrayed subtly, but vividly, in the painting.

After quaking at the sight of the glories that stream from afar, the shepherds have hurried off to find Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in a manger (Luke 2:16). Strom pictures an older Joseph with a younger Mary. Two generations of shepherds have gathered around “yon virgin mother and child, Holy Infant, so tender and mild.” Stom pictures an older shepherd, his wife, and their son having left their flocks in the fields nearby to go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, that the Lord had told them about (Luke 2:15).

In Adoration of the Shepherds, the faces of Joseph, Mary, and the shepherd family are bathed in light. The rest of the room is dark. The light comes from the “Holy Infant, so tender and mild.” Though separated by over a century and through the different mediums of art and music, Stom and Mohr portray this light as “radiant beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace.”

Whether it is the soft mood of the Adoration of the Shepherds or the quiet words, soft melody and lone guitar of Silent Night, they both reflect the reality of the first Christmas. It was truly a silent night. In the streets of the tiny village of Bethlehem, you might have been able to hear Mary’s muffled moans as she gave birth to Jesus. You might have heard the delicate cries of the newborn baby emerging from the manger. Few, however, would have noticed.

Jesus’ birth was not reported on CNN. There were no TV cameras or paparazzi at the stable. Social media was not alerted. Jesus’ birth didn’t go viral until years later. It was a night like any other.

On that night the almighty God was born as a helpless baby and nobody noticed except a handful of shepherds who were sleeping in the fields outside of Bethlehem.

But in reality, that silent night was unlike any night. For during that holy night came our salvation. The baby so tender and mild was born to die a painful death. He was laid in a manger so that He could die on a cross. He came to take your place and suffer your punishment for all the hurtful things you think, say and do. He came to win for you a home in heaven. Through that baby, God won and offers eternal life to all people from every nation, tribe, people and language.

Deep theology radiates from the simple words and pure pictures of this two hundred year old Christmas carol. The incarnation of the Christ taking on human flesh and blood was not the actual blood-redemption, but it was the dawn of redeeming grace. With the arrival of God’s Son on earth, the long centuries of waiting were over and God’s plans were in motion. Grace fulfilled to us was given from the golden heights of heaven.

Those chubby baby hands would be pierced to save you. His beautiful brow would be crowned with thorns. His first cry would echo 33 years later when the Savior cried out, “It is finished!”

Jesus is not born a prince in a palace with His birth heralded by trumpets. He is not born in the temple attended to by priests. He is not born in Rome with armies pledged to obey His every command. Jesus is born in the little town of Bethlehem. His advent is heralded by angels. He is attended to by an unwed couple. He is praised by a bunch of shepherds who return to their fields.

Jesus is no celebrity, no earthly conqueror, no worldly king. The child who is born on Christmas Eve is the Savior of every man, woman and child. He is the Great Physician who has been born for the poor, the sick, the crippled, the grieving, the anxious, and the immoral. He is the Immanuel who is God with us. Christ’s long-promised and now fulfilled birth suddenly changes everything in heaven and on earth.

The Christ Child was born in darkness that we might be reborn as children of the light. He died in the darkness that we might live in the light of His life. He rose at dawn to usher in the new day of His resurrection. He was born on a silent, holy night in Bethlehem so that we might enjoy an eternity of sunshine-filled days in the New Jerusalem of heaven.

Perhaps most of all, “Silent Night” is beloved because it reminds us in its simple, but exceedingly clear way, the truth behind it all – the truth that changes everything in heaven and on earth: “Christ, the Savior is born! Christ, the Savior is born!” Amen.