The First Silent Night
On Christmas Eve, 1818, in the small Austrian village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, the members of the Catholic church gathered for the Christmas Eve mass. The priest, Joseph Mohr, had just recently come to the church. Two years earlier he wrote a poem and asked his organist, Franz Gruber, to set it to music for the service. Instead of playing it on the organ, Franz Gruber played it on guitar.
That is all we know for certain about the first public performance of Silent Night. Stories abound. They had planned to play it on the organ, but church mice had chewed through the hoses that fed the organ pipes, and Gruber was able to transpose the music quickly for guitar. Or the church was beside the Salzach River, which had recently flooded, and so Mohr requested the song be played on guitar because the organ was damaged in the flood. Or he just thought it would sound better on guitar. We really don’t know. And the reason we don’t know is that the most famous, mostly widely translated Christmas carol, went virtually unheard soon after its first performance. For all we know, people went home that night complaining, “When I go to a Christmas Eve service, I expect to hear the organ, not some bozo on a guitar. And why these new songs. What’s wrong with the old ones?” But we really have no idea. After that night, the song disappeared for a while. In fact, they actually sung it AFTER the service, because the guitar was not seen as a fitting instrument for a church service, which leads some to believe that perhaps the organ was working that night.
Gruber, the composer, gave a copy of the song to Karl Mauracher, an organ builder, and the man who serviced the organ in the Oberndorf church. Mauracher passed it on to travelling families of folk singers, the Strassers and the Rainers. Singing families was a thing in Austria back then. Of course the most famous singing family was the von Trapp family from the Sound of Music. These two families toured with the song, and it started gaining in popularity. It was performed for Franz I of Austria and Alexander I of Russia, and by the 1840s was getting to be known in Germany. The first American performance was in New York in 1839. But Joseph Mohr’s name was forgotten. People were crediting the composer, Franz Gruber as the song writer, and attributing the tune various other more famous composers, Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. In fact Joseph Mohr died without ever knowing how famous his little song had become.
In the 1850s the song had become so popular that the Royal Hofkapelle (court orchestra) in Berlin commissioned a search for the author and composer. They managed to located Franz Gruber, but by that time Mohr had died. Gruber recounted, to the best of his memory, the story of that first night it was performed.
The church where it was first performed,St. Nicholas, was destroyed by a flood in 1899. It was rebuilt in 1906, further upstream from the river, where it would be protected from future flooding. In 1926 the city began construction of the Silent Night Chapel, which was finally finished in 1937.
There are few symbols of Christmas more appropriate than Silent Night. Tonight is the 200th Anniversary of that first night when it was sung in Oberndorf bei Salzburg. Silent Night has been translated into more than 300 languages, which is impressive considering there are only 195 countries recognized by the UN. It has just been translated into Kurdish Soranî. Bing Crosby’s recording of Silent Night is still the third best selling single in the United States, behind White Christmas, also sung by Crosby, and Candle in the Wind by Elton John.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was started when British troops heard the Germans across No Man’s Land singing Stille Nacht in their trenches. In countless churches across the world Christmas Eve services end with the singing of Silent Night, often by candlelight.
But the symbolism goes even deeper.
There are times when incredibly important things have incredibly humble beginnings. Silent Night was one. The birth of Jesus itself, which Silent Night so artfully represents, is another. When Mary and Joseph were looking for a place to have their baby, no one proclaimed, “The Son of God cannot be born in a stable! We must have only the best for his birth.” In fact the only people who had an inkling of what this baby would become, other than Mary and Joseph, were local shepherds, who were not exactly the cream of the crop of Bethlehem’s social elite. True, some wise men showed up later, but that only served to alert the King Herod, and the boy born on the road soon took to the road again, as a refugee from political violence. In fact that baby would grow up and tell the world that he identified with the poor and the outcast of society, so much that if you helped them, it was as if you were doing it for him.
This night we gather to celebrate the birth of a boy, in a far away time, at a far away place, a birth that few took notice of at the time. You would think that the Creator God, the Essence of All Being, the Infinite and Omniscient Lord of all that is, would come into this world with a lot more fanfare. But when the boy grew up, he said he came, not be served, but to serve–to serve all of humanity.
When I lived in Germany as a student, one of the things I was looking forward to was singing Silent Night at a Christmas Eve service in German. I attended the service at the chapel at the University where I was a student. We sang a lot of songs that night. One of them, I remember, had 9 verses, and we sang all nine. Later someone told me there were 17 verses to that song, so I guess we got off easy singing only the nine. I waited for Silent Night, but I waited in vain. We never sang it. I went to church the next day, on Christmas, thinking surely we would sing at the Christmas service, but again I was disappointed. I mentioned this to one of my German friends, who told me they don’t sing anymore. I asked why, and they told me the Nazis hijacked the song, and turned it into a nationalist anthem to support Hitler.
In fact you might have heard about the “War on Christmas” the last few years. What we have here is nothing to what the Nazis did to Christmas. They took out all references to God and Jesus, and replaced them with words that extolled the holy nature of the Third Reich. The wound from that abomination was still aching when I was there in the late 1980s. Maybe they have moved past it, and I’m not saying they never sing it there, but it goes to show how fragile holiness of that night can be in the short run. Our noise can pierce through the silence, the demons of our worse nature can shatter the holiness, but only for a time.
God has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ, born some 2000 years ago, to bring peace on earth. But like any peace, this peace God has brought can be shattered.
When it comes to the Incarnation, God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, almost all theologians agree that Jesus did not just take on the flesh of the baby born in the stable–he took on all of humanity. When God created the world, the world took on the character of God, the same way a symphony by Mozart takes on the essence of who Mozart is. All people are tied together by God who created us. But we forget that. The God who created us is a bridge between all peoples, and between humanity and creation, but we keep erecting walls where there should be bridges. We break the peace God has created between us. We profane what is holy.
But the love of God is so much larger than our imaginations can fathom. It is more powerful than any force known on earth. Years ago some people tried to co-opt the message for nationalist purposes, but they are long gone, and the message of Peace on earth continues. Sometimes the noise of other voices threatens to drown out that voice, but it is an empty threat. The only way the message can truly be silenced is if the people who follow the King of Kings are silent. The only the peace of God can be truly broken is if the people of God refuse to put away, in the words of the great hymn, their “warring madness.”
But if we follow the child born in Bethlehem, we cannot help but be overcome with his love. We cannot help but be people of hope. We cannot help but to embody the joy of God.
Many years ago, when the world seemed to be on the brink of nuclear annihilation, when Kennedy was navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis, another Christmas song was written. We are not going to sing it tonight, but we will hear it played. Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker were watching the crisis on TV and praying for peace. And they wrote the song, Do You Hear What I Hear. It was a much darker time than these times, but the hope embodied in that song is a tonic for us today.
Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
The light overcomes the darkness when we let the Light of God shine in us. Hope overcomes despair, when we trust in God. Peace overcomes conflict when we follow the Prince of Peace before we pay homage to the rulers of this world. Joy overcomes sorrow and fear when we celebrate the coming of the savior of all people. Love overcomes hate when we come to realize how much God loves us, and we reflect God’s love in our lives.