In 1818, a young assistant priest named Joseph Mohr in Oberndorf, Austria, asked a schoolmaster and organist in a nearby village to write a melody for some song lyrics he had written two years before. Franz Xaver Gruber complied, and the result was our beloved carol Silent Night, which was sung for the first time there in Oberndorf, Austria, on Christmas Eve, 1818—exactly six days and two hundred years ago. The original composition calls for guitar, and since guitar was not commonly used in churches at that time, many have speculated about the reason. Some say the organ bellows were damaged by a church mouse and the organ couldn’t produce a single sound on Christmas Eve. This is most likely not true. Others say the organ was damaged by flooding, which is very possibly true. The area did flood regularly, and we know that an organ builder named Karl Mauracher did work on the organ within a few months. We know this because he heard the song while he was there and became enamored with it. He took the composition home with him and began to teach it. From there, two travelling families of folk singers learned the song and included the tune in their shows the following Christmas, beginning its spread through Europe.
The church in Oberndorf was eventually destroyed by repeated flooding, and a new building was built. It is called the Silent Night Chapel. The chapel was the center of this year’s Jubilee Celebration on the 200 anniversary of the carol. If you had the money and the desire, you could have traveled to Europe this December for a tour of the chapel, several Silent Night museums, and other spots of interest on the journey of this beloved carol. They even advertised romantic getaway weekends in Austria in celebration of the song.
The song is now sung in over 300 languages and dialects. Of course, translating poetry and lyrics can be difficult. The translator has to maintain the rhythm and the rhyme in order to make the song fit in each new language. So obviously there are slight differences. In 1998 the Silent Night Museum in Salzburg commissioned a new English translation of all six original verses. (Only three made it into most contemporary hymnals.) I’d like for us to sing these verses now, and I’ve asked Xander Keiter to accompany us, so that we can get as close to the original as possible without knowing German. Please join me in singing the words printed in your bulletin.
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 is redeemed. All the world is redeemed.
Silent Night! Holy Night! Shepherds first saw the sight
Of angels singing alleluia
Calling clearly near and far:
Christ, the Savior is born. Christ the Savior is born.
I was glad when I read this translation that some of my favorite phrases remain. The first is “Sleep in heavenly peace.” We need some heavenly peace because earthly peace can be so fleeting. Wars continue to rage. Conflicts continue to break out around the world. Earth’s peace isn’t doing us much good. We need some heavenly peace. But it’s true individually as well. Sometimes I feel at peace—at peace with myself, with others, and with God. But I’m also aware that even my inner peace is sometimes more like a détente. It is an easing of strained relationships but not a complete healing. Sometimes I’m at peace with myself and sometimes I’m in détente with myself! I need some heavenly peace, the peace that passes understanding, the peace that does not disappear as quickly as the results of my relaxation massage.
My other favorite line is “Son of God, Love’s pure light.” When I was young, I thought it was saying that the Son of God loves pure light. But that apostrophe carries a world of meaning. The Son of God IS the pure light of love. But then there are the verses most of us hadn’t seen before today. I think there are several reasons that three of these verses have been “lost.” First, the singing of seven verses to any hymn has gone out of vogue. We’re much more time-conscious these days, and we often don’t even sing all four verses of a hymn, much less six. But also some of the theology is a bit controversial.
“In 1816 [when he wrote the lyrics] he was living in an isolated mountain village . . . in which pre-Christian rituals still thrived alongside the Christian ceremonies.” The Catholic authorities tried to stamp out these rituals, preaching damnation and hellfire, but this verse suggests that Mohr believed that God offers redemption to everyone. Take a look again at that fifth verse. It is saying:
Long ago God saw our plight and freed us from misery.
Long ago God decreed the universal redemption of the world.
Universalism, or universal salvation, is the idea that all souls will ultimately be reconciled to God because of God’s mercy and love. The view is that God’s loving influence is so irresistible that all people, not just Christians, will be drawn to God. The belief that all people can be one with God, regardless of religious affiliation, is a fairly common belief in moderate to progressive Christian churches now. But in the 19th century, it was a minority belief and, to some people, heresy. I’m not surprised this verse wasn’t printed in every hymnal.
But there’s one verse I had really hoped for that I didn’t find. I wanted something about a noisy night. I wish the song recognized that the first Christmas night was not silent. There was a young mother experiencing the pain of childbirth, which I’m told can be a fairly noisy event. Then the baby was born, and undoubtedly, the little Lord Jesus some crying he made! The night was no less holy because it was noisy. And sure, my children do eventually go to sleep every night, but as a general rule, my house is noisy. It’s a wild mix of show tunes and Tarzan calls. There’s singing and yelling and barking and laughing and yet it is the place I most often feel God. It is a holy place to me. So I want a new verse.
Noisy night, raucous night, all is wild, you better hold tight!
But round the table we gather so near
With our love we cast out the fear
Love’s pure light shines still. Love’s pure light shines still.
Whether you experience God best in the silence or the noise, whether your idea of holy is in a sanctuary or on Cadillac Mountain, whether your life is quiet and you long for noise, or whether your life is noisy and you long for quiet, still I pray you will experience and be aware of those holy times, for Christ the Savior is born. Maybe this can be something you strive for in the new year: to be aware of the holy, to seek out those moments when the veil between you and the divine is thin, or non-existent. I’m actually not big on new year’s resolutions, mostly because I rarely keep them. So instead I want you to think of one thing you want more of and one thing you want less of—first on a personal level, and then on a national or global level. Now gather in a group of 3 or 4 people and share your thoughts.