Every Christmas some small child in a church, a school play or just surrounded by friends and family at home will pick up a musical instrument and proudly play the most beloved Christmas carol of all time. It may be a little out of tune or perhaps not quite concert hall quality but the love that pours out of that little instrument is what makes Silent Night so special year after year.
Now translated into more than 124 languages it’s a simple carol but one that has brought families back together. Given hope to the hopeless, given strength to the oppressed and has even stopped the roar of a battle field. A carol that in more than a few small ways might have changed the course of history.
The Vienna Boys Choir are known around the world as having one of the finest representations of this legendary Christmas carol and in fact it is their home in Austria where the story of Silent Night began.
It is 1818, Christmas is approaching. Returning from blessing a new born child, Father Joseph Moore has been literally overwhelmed by the Madonna like beauty of the mother and her new baby. As he looks out over the river his mind races back two thousand years to another starlight night on a hillside in Bethlehem.
His emotions overflowing with the power and the beauty of that night so long ago, he begins to catch a vision of the majesty of what actually took place when the baby Jesus was born.
Be still and know that I am God sang the psalmist. Stillness. Holiness. It must have truly been a Holy Night, a night that changed the course of the world. That electric moment gave Father Moor a Burst of creative energy he had never experienced. At home just minutes later, his study bitterly cold, he failed to notice. Hours passed but he never checks the time. He’s writing a poem, 6 stanzas in all. It begins Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. In English the words translate “Silent Night, Holy Night”. The words capture that moment of wonder in Bethlehem. The dire poverty and pain of a woman in labor, in a barn crowded with animals. Of the basic earthly simplicity of the event, the humility of the shepherds overwhelmed with the terror and majesty of the moment, that moment when a human soul was engulfed in holiness.
But his mind is drawn from his pen, he remembers an impossible situation. For his congregation, Christmas mass is the high point of the entire holiday season, but the church organ is silent. Mice have eaten through the bellows and Christmas Eve is just around the corner. St Nicholas is a poor perish and can’t possibly afford a new organ. Without a Christmas miracle, Christmas Eve will be without music. Then he remembered his poem. What if the poem was put to music? Not for a voiceless organ but for human voices. Even with guitar perhaps. He hurries to the house of his friend Franz Gruber. Father Moore reads the poem he’s written about the first Christmas and he implores Franz to set his verses to music. Can he set the verses to verses to music by tomorrow night? Franz is deeply moved by the sincerity of Moore’s poem. He begins setting it to a lullaby like melody. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. It is unlike any Christmas carol ever heard before.
And even today as we listen to the song there is an overwhelming feeling of silence, timelessness, and holiness. A gift has been given. And from that moment onward the course of humanity has been changed until the tending of time. It is a moment indescribable. The moment is the basis of every years Christmas. From world wars to the frustrations and struggles of everyday living , the message of Silent Night continues to remind us that on one star filled evening two thousand years ago God shared with us his most precious gift. Desiring our love and longing for us to know his, he became like us. And through the miracle of incarnation, we now have the opportunity to touch the infinite.
Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright