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200 Years of Silent Night

Talk from this year's Christmas Midnight Communion

It’s Christmas Eve! But you discover the organ’s broken! To be precise, the bellows have been nibbled by mice... What do you do? How can you sing the carols?

You nip down to a friend who plays the guitar and ask him to write something that works just with a guitar. And he comes up with a ditty – and with only three chords...

That’s how Silent Night came into the world in an Austrian village – so the story goes. It did help that the assistant priest, Joseph Mohr, had already written a poem a couple of years before that he probably thought was far too simple for a church service. But 1818 – two hundred years ago – was the year that words and music came together as if they’d always been meant for each other. And the names Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber were for ever enshrined in the carol books – although apparently the copy was lost until workmen mending the organ rediscovered it in 1825. It’s a good job the mice didn’t like paper!

Since then, Silent Night (or Stille Nacht) has spread throughout the world, and it’s been sung in over 300 languages and dialects.

When I first came to Bishopstoke and was planning a carol service, someone said to me, ‘You have to include Silent Night.’ It seemed to be the one carol we really had to have every year – and we’ve kept that up.

But what is it about Silent Night? Why do people love it so much? What makes it arguably the most famous of all Christmas carols?

Is it the simplicity of the chords? Is it the lilt of the rhythm – like a lullaby? Is it the shape of the melody – simple and memorable, but interesting and well constructed, building to a climax in just the right place before descending again? Or could it be the words?....

From that point of view, it’s quite interesting. It doesn’t seem to say a lot. It doesn’t tell much, if any, of the Christmas story. There’s just Mary and Jesus, and a brief appearance of the shepherds and angels in one verse.

It’s been good news for the Austrian tourist industry. Do you know you can go on a Silent Night tour through the ‘Land of Silent Night’, taking in Oberndorf where it was written, not all that far from Salzburg? And their 200th anniversary website describes it as a ‘Song of Peace’. Perhaps they’re thinking of the feel of the whole song. Perhaps it’s the line ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’. Perhaps that’s why people love it so much.

1818 was a time of great turmoil in Europe. But there’s hardly been a year without war or some sort of unrest since then, and it’s as true today as ever – we need peace in the world. We need peace in Yemen, Ukraine, Israel-Palestine & Gaza, Syria. We need to keep praying for peace.

But sleep in heavenly peace? Why heavenly? Isn’t this all a bit detached from reality?

That’s one of the things about this carol. It’s a bit detached. It’s as if the baby and his mother are enclosed in a pool of light, a circle of peace and protection, separate from the world around. The light shines on them when everywhere else is in darkness. Is that what we should be thinking about at Christmas?

Of course, this was originally written in German, and surprise..... there aren’t three verses in German – there are six. We haven’t got time for a German course this evening, but those six verses do go a bit deeper.

They still don’t include more of the Christmas story. But they talk about Jesus coming as one of mankind – so there is something down to earth about it. And they talk about him coming as a brother, embracing all nations on earth. What a wonderful thought for today! Our brother Jesus, embracing all the nations of the earth.

But heavenly peace? Heavenly peace? Why not earthly peace?

I still like the English version, though. I’m so used to having just three verses. Perhaps it is a bit detached from the world. Perhaps it is a bit unreal. But perhaps there’s a focus on what really matters.

It’s a contemplative song, focused simply on Mary and Jesus. And there are times for that. We need to have times to focus on Jesus and simply contemplate him, look at him, adore him, and then think about who he is. In Silent Night he’s the Son of God, the Saviour.

I don’t believe his face was really shining. But perhaps that line’s trying to tell us something else – that this child is different, this child is unique. Beneath that ordinary human exterior – and he was completely human – there’s something else: the light and love of God: ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.’ (Hebrews 1.3)

Perhaps that helps us to understand heavenly peace, because this child has brought the peace of heaven down to earth. He’s brought the love of heaven down to earth. He is heaven come to earth.

The world certainly needs peace this Christmas. Our nation needs peace this Christmas. I wonder if you need a bit of peace in your life.

Silent Night seems to say that we’ll only get perfect peace through the one who came to bring it from heaven. We need time to think about Jesus, we need space to contemplate him – to see the radiant beams from his face. We need to get in touch with him. And we need to receive his grace, the redeeming grace that came into the world through that birth in Bethlehem.

‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1.14)

Grace is a gift. It tells us we can’t live life just trying to do things in our own strength. It tells us we can’t earn God’s favour by being good – because we’ll always fail. It tells us that God loves us, because he loves us, because he loves us, because he loves us... God’s love is completely unconditional – a gift!

Here’s verse 5 – in English:

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.

Can you place your life into the hands of Christ the Saviour this Christmas? Can you live in the strength of his grace? And can you offer that grace and peace to the world around?

Silent night, holy night,

all is calm, all is bright,

round the Virgin Mother and Child;

Holy Infant, so tender and mild,

sleep in heavenly peace,

sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,

shepherds quail at the sight;

glories stream from heaven afar,

heavenly hosts sing, ‘Alleluia!

Christ, the Saviour is born,

Christ, the Saviour is born.’

Silent night, holy night,

Son of God, Love’s pure Light;

brightly shines your holy face,

with the dawn of saving grace:

Jesus, Lord, at your birth,

Jesus, Lord, at your birth.

Joseph Mohr

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