Silent night, holy night – J. Barry Vaughn – Christmas Eve – Dec. 24, 2018

December 24, 2018

Silent night, holy night – J. Barry Vaughn – Christmas Eve – Dec. 24, 2018

Two hundred years ago tonight the people in the parish church in the Austrian village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg heard their priest and a school teacher from a neighboring village sing a brand new Christmas carol. The church’s organ was unusable because it had been damaged when the river flooded the church, so the school teacher accompanied the carol with his guitar.


I’m sure you realize that I’m talking about “Silent night,” the words of which were written by Father Josef Mohr and the music composed by Franz Gruber.


No one can prove that “Silent night” is the world’s most popular Christmas carol, but I think it’s a good bet, not least because it’s been translated into about 300 languages!


Legend has it that Franz Gruber wrote the melody for “Silent night” in one afternoon. He was careful to make it simple enough to be accompanied by a guitar. The guitar is ideal for accompanying “Silent night” because its harmony is so simple. It consists of the simplest chords in the musical scale. Ask Dr. Deffner about it later!


After it was first sung in Oberndorf, Austria, on Christmas Eve, 1818, “Silent night” was taken up by traveling bands of singers. Think of the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music. Eventually, it made its way to the United States, where John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest who served Trinity Parish, New York City, translated it and published it in 1859. Young later became bishop of Florida.


However, there is still more to the story of “Silent night” than the events of Christmas Eve two hundred years ago.


Father Mohr had actually written “Silent night” in 1816, just one year after the Napoleonic Wars ended with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. He wrote it partly to celebrate the coming of peace, hence the last line of the first verse: “Sleep in heavenly peace.”


1816 was also known as the “year without a summer.” There was famine all across Europe because of the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa. The dust Krakatoa hurled into the atmosphere caused an average drop in temperatures of one to two degrees all across the world. In other words, there were worries about climate change even in 1816!


Furthermore, the village of Oberndorf, where “Silent night” was first sung, went from being under control of the German state of Bavaria to being under Austrian control.


In short, “Silent night” was the product of war, famine, climate change, and political chaos. That is to say, it was a product of a time much like our own. It was certainly not the product of a time of peace, plenty, and goodwill.


For that matter, the story of “Silent night” is not that different from the story of Jesus’ birth. Jesus was born in the stable of a busy inn. Not only was the inn full of travelers who had come to Bethlehem to be counted in the census, but perhaps Jesus and his parents were not the only ones who had been forced to take refuge in the stable. So it’s unlikely that the night of his birth was a “silent night” at all.


Jesus was born in Bethlehem rather than in Nazareth where Joseph and Mary lived because the Roman emperor, Tiberius, had ordered that all the citizens of his vast empire should be counted. That’s what emperors like to do: they like to count their subjects just like misers count their coins. Furthermore, Jesus was born in an occupied country. Rome had created the province of Judea in 63 BC, and Roman soldiers in the garrisons in Jerusalem and Caesarea Maritima and Jerusalem maintained order and saw to the punishment of troublemakers. One troublemaker they punished was Jesus himself. Remember that Jesus was sentenced to death for the crime of treason as defined in Roman law. .


Immediately after his birth, Jesus and his parents were forced to flee to Egypt when Herod sent orders to kill all the young children of Bethlehem. It’s a good thing that Egypt wasn’t imprisoning those seeking asylum!


So, it’s hardly likely that the night of Jesus’ birth a “silent night” or that he and Mary and Joseph slept in “heavenly peace.” His birth took place in a time and place of conflict and tension. It was just like the time when Josef Mohr wrote “Silent night.” For that matter, it was just like our own time.


We sing only three verses of Father Mohr’s poem, but he wrote six verses. Also, John Freeman Young’s translation is not all that close to the original German. Here are the original six verses of “Silent night” in a more accurate translation:


Silent Night! Holy Night!

All is calm, all is bright

Round yon godly tender pair.

Holy infant with curly hair ,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.


Silent Night! Holy Night!

Son of God, love’s pure light

Radiant beams from thy holy face,

With the dawn of redeeming grace,

Jesus, Lord at thy birth

Jesus, Lord at thy birth.


Silent Night! Holy Night!

Brought the world gracious light,

Down from heaven’s golden height

Comes to us the glorious sight:

Jesus, as one of mankind,

Jesus, as one of mankind.


Silent Night! Holy Night!

By his love, by his might

God our Father us has graced,

As a brother gently embraced

Jesus, all nations on earth,

Jesus, all nations on earth.


Silent Night! Holy Night!

Long ago, minding our plight

God the world from misery freed,

In the dark age of our fathers decreed:

All the world  redeemed,

All the world  redeemed.


Silent Night! Holy Night!

Shepherds first saw the sight

Of angels singing alleluia

Calling clearly near and far:

Christ, the Saviour is born,

Christ the Saviour is born


I especially like verse 4:


Silent Night! Holy Night!

By his love, by his might

God our Father us has graced,

As a brother gently embraced

Jesus, all nations on earth,

Jesus, all nations on earth.


As Father Mohr’s song reminds us, we need to remember much more frequently that the nations of earth are full of our brothers and sisters and that in Jesus, God has embraced us all.


At Christmas time we remember once again that Jesus is God’s word made flesh, a word that is best heard in silence. But silence is hard to come by in our busy, noisy world.


We also need to remember that Jesus is the light “who enlightens everyone who comes into the world,” a light that is difficult to see while we are absorbed in the screens of our televisions, smart phones, and computers.


So this Christmas “let us go again even unto Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass.” But to do that we need to practice the silence of “Silent night.” And in that silence we may hear again the message of the angels: the message that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, that God’s good will extends to all on earth, and that in Jesus of Nazareth God has drawn near to every one of us, embracing us in his love.


Merry Christmas!

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