Monday, December 24, 2012

Silent Night, Holy Night

It was 194 years ago this day that the popular Christmas carol, "Silent Night, Holy Night", was sung for the first time during midnight Mass at Saint Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. The lyrics had been written a few years earlier by Father Joseph Mohr during his first parish assignment. When he was transferred to Saint Nicholas Church, he sought out Franz Gruber, a local music teacher, to put the poem to music so that the young priest could play it in on his guitar since the church organ was being repaired. In the ensuing years, the song grew in popularity and became a feature of every Christmas liturgy throughout the parishes of Austria. By the time the song had spread throughout Europe, however, Father Mohr and Franz Gruber had died and their identity as the composers of the song had been forgotten. It was assumed that the carol was the work of one of the great composers such as Haydn, Mozart or even Beethoven. It is only in the last few decades that the world learned the real story behind the song, that it is the work of a simple parish priest and an otherwise unknown music teacher.

In the years since "Silent Night, Holy Night" was first performed it has been translated into hundreds of languages and become the mainstay of every midnight Mass. The popularity of the song is no doubt due to its simplicity. It is easy to sing and easy to learn. However, more importantly, perhaps unlike any other Christmas carol it evokes for us what it must have been like that night when Christ was born in a stable at Bethlehem. The song brings us there. We feel the stillness of the night air. We see the joy on the faces of Mary and Joseph. We look upon the radiant face of the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes. We kneel down with the shepherds as they adore their newborn king. We take in the peace of knowing that a child is born for us who will be the Savior of the world. No other composition helps us to contemplate the scene at Bethlehem that night as that simple song does.

What do we see on this silent and holy night as we gather to celebrate the birth of our Savior? We see the Almighty God become a helpless baby. We see that there is no room on earth for the one who came down from heaven. We see a baby adored by simple shepherds but despised by the mighty King Herod. We see the God who stooped down from heaven to save us; the one who loved us enough that he would die for our sins; the one who, though weak, would conquer sin and death through his resurrection. We look upon Jesus, a baby, who is our Lord and our God.

This is a silent and holy night. It is a night for quietly reflecting on the birth of Jesus. It is a night for welcoming the one who came to save us. It is a night for taking into our arms and holding the baby from Bethlehem. It is a night to savor the joy and peace of Christ's humble presence among us. It is also a night to weep because it is our sins that made it inevitable that this helpless child would suffer and die.

Is this beautiful and peaceful scene enough to change us? Now that the salvation of God has been revealed to us, can we put aside godless ways? Now that our Savior has come down from heaven, can we leave the world and all its empty pleasures behind? Now that the wisdom of God has been revealed in Jesus, can we turn away from our foolishness?

On a silent and holy night such as this one over two thousand years ago, the world changed forever, and we have been celebrating the miracle of Christ's birth ever since. It was those with simple faith and open hearts who were able to recognize the mystery and welcome it into their lives. We gather here to open our eyes in wonder once again at the great love that God has shown us in sending Jesus to save us, and we renew our commitment to live the mystery of his love every day of our lives. We pledge to allow the gift of Jesus' presence in our lives to make us holy. At the same time, we will not be silent, but spread the good news of his birth to everyone we meet.

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