Silent night, troubled night

carols
Silent Night Memorial Chapel, Oberndorf, Austria

A popular Christmas carol can teach us about peace when all is not calm

Picture a typical night during this year’s Christmas season.

The shops are open late as people rush to buy last minute gifts. There are family members to be seen, Christmas parties to attend and a new year to prepare for.

Have you ever wondered what Christmas would have looked like a couple of hundred years ago? There would have been candlelight instead of flashing lights, handmade gifts, not battery operated toys, and peaceful walks rather than a busy commute.

In the northern hemisphere, it may have been a white Christmas, with snow softly falling on a picturesque village.

In such a setting, we can hardly wonder that, in 1816, a priest named Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to the now famous Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” while living in the Austrian town of Mariapfarr.

According to the Silent Night Society, two years later, when Mohr was assistant priest at St Nicholas church in Oberndorf, he asked school teacher Franz Gruber to set his words to music.

Gruber completed the melody in time for the Christmas service that night in 1818, where Mohr sang tenor and played guitar while Gruber sang bass.

“Silent Night” is one of the most well-known Christmas carols ever written and was declared an intangible cultural heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2011.

The words have changed somewhat from the original, which included six verses. Today, versions of the first, sixth and third verses are sung in hundreds of languages.

The Silent Night Society calls it, “The Carol of Peace,” so it may be surprising to learn that “Silent Night” was written during a time of turmoil.

The Napoleonic wars had just ended and borders were being changed, affecting trade and employment. Oberndorf was cut off from its town centre and Mariapfarr struggled after occupying troops withdrew.

The Silent Night Society points out that the original fourth verse therefore “takes on special meaning.” The original lyrics were “Silent night! Holy night!/ Where on this day all power/ of fatherly love poured forth/ And like a brother lovingly embraced/ Jesus the peoples of the world.”

During World War I, “Silent Night” was allegedly sung by opposing forces during the 1914 Christmas truce and the account of a British woman, Belle Thomas, to the BBC, mentions it being sung the Christmas after World War II ended: “The thing I remember most was when we all stood around the tree and sang ‘Silent Night’. (The Prisoners of War) sang in German and we sang in English and it seemed a very fitting ending to our war memories.”

Throughout history, “Silent Night” has been performed in times of trouble; this year, it will be heard by people experiencing the aftermath of war, natural disaster and economic crisis.

What was it that enabled Mohr to still sing of peace in the midst of chaos, and can we also experience this peace?

The answer can be found in the third verse sung today: “Son of God, love’s pure light/ Radiant beams from Thy holy face/ With the dawn of redeeming grace/ Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.”

Luke chapter 2, verses 10-14, say of Jesus’ birth: “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favour rests.’”

Jesus was sacrificed to pay the penalty for our wrongdoings and has brought us the peace of knowing we can have eternal life with Him.

Though that may not be the peace we envisage when singing “All is calm, all is bright,” the angel spoke of peace at Jesus’ birth despite Mary and Joseph being unable to find a room in an inn. This is not a circumstantial peace.

Isaiah chapter 53, verse 5 says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.”

This was the peace that Mohr wrote of in verse three’s original lyrics, “Silent night! Holy night!/ Which brought salvation to the world/ From Heavens golden heights/ Mercys abundance was made visible to us/ Jesus in human form.”

vietnam
Vietnam War: Soldiers taking rest close to a small Christmas tree.
(Photo CORR/AFP/Getty Images)

Or consider the original verse five: “Silent night! Holy night!/ Already long ago planned for us/ When the Lord frees from wrath/ Since the beginning of ancient times/ A salvation promised for the whole world.”

Jesus did not live a peaceful life, but He lived that we might have peace, despite our circumstances.

It can be difficult to feel like that is even possible at times, and instead we tend to put our trust in tangible things like money, property, jobs or other people.

But take it from an intangible heritage: though unseen, the gift of God’s salvation is a source of peace that will never fail those who accept it.

“Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord,” says Romans 15, verse 13.

May you personally know this peace this Christmas that is without doubt the most precious gift any human being could receive.

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