Backstory: “Silent Night”

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The story behind Silent Night is the story of a miracle.

December 24, 1818: In the little village of Oberndorf, Austria, Father Joseph Mohr is getting the church ready for Christmas Eve services, when he suddenly discovers that mice have chewed through the bellows of the organ and destroyed it.

In horror, he frantically runs back to his house and grabs a poem he’d written about the birth of Christ. He takes it to Franz Gruber, the local school master, who is also the church organist, and he says, “Franz, Franz, the church organ’s been destroyed! Quick – take this poem and write a tune that can be played on guitar!”

And that night, since they couldn’t do “real” music on the organ, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber performed Silent Night on guitar. And lo and behold, it was a miracle! This last-minute rush job – this poor, makeshift replacement for real music – actually turned out pretty good.

(Sort of like in school when you wrote a paper the night before it was due and you still got an A).

Now, isn’t that a great story?

The only problem is, we’re not really sure that’s how it happened.

Here’s what we do know:

We know that Joseph Mohr, who was actually the assistant priest, took the poem to Franz Gruber on Christmas Eve day, 1818. He had actually written the poem two years earlier, in 1816.

And we know that Father Mohr asked Gruber to compose a tune that could be played on guitar. But the fact is we don’t really know why. We have no record of the organ being destroyed.  Maybe that’s what happened. But maybe it was that that Austrian folk music was becoming popular, like in the Sound of Music.

Or maybe Father Mohr just liked the guitar.

We also know that that very same knight, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber performed their new song. Father Mohr played the guitar and sang tenor, and Franz Gruber sang bass.

And finally, we know this: Tonight, all around the world, in over 100 different languages—and despite the pandemic—people will be singing this song.

And as this simple song leads people to focus on Jesus, it will usher in Peace on Earth, if only for a few moments.

So, the real miracle behind Silent Night is not the last-minute rush job, but the power of simplicity.

The words were written by an assistant priest from a small village.

The music was composed by a local school teacher.

And at the world premiere, on Christmas Eve 1818, there was no grand orchestra to play, no famous celebrity to sing – just an assistant priest, a school teacher, and a guitar.

*****

Now, fast-forward 96 years to Christmas Eve 1914: World War I is raging across Europe. It’s trench warfare – the soldiers would dig trenches on the battlefield and shoot at each other from the trenches. The ground between the trenches was called “No Man’s Land” – you didn’t go there unless you wanted to get shot.

German soldiers, hunkered down in their trenches, were tired of war and longing for home, so they put up little tiny Christmas trees and they lit candles.

And they began to sing:

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht

Alles schlaft, Einsam Wacht

And the British soldiers on the other side of the front heard the singing. They recognized the tune. And they joined in in English:

Silent Night, Holy Night

All is calm, All is bright

And the next thing you know, somebody climbed out of the trench into “No Man’s Land.”

And then somebody else.

And then somebody else.

German and British soldiers met in the middle of the battlefield. They shook hands. They embraced.

They exchanged gifts – whatever they had – candy, cigarettes, alcohol – they took buttons off their uniforms and shared them with each other as souvenirs.

And then they worked together to bury the dead: Joint services – British and German – praying together for the souls of friend and foe alike.

The sun came up and it was Christmas day – and they played soccer. Nobody wanted to sit out of the game, so they had something like 50 men on each team. The Germans won by a score of 2 to 1.

The Christmas Eve truce of 1914 lasted several days until the higher ups at military headquarters found out about it and sent stern orders to the troops: “Knock off this foolishness and get back to killing each other!”

But here’s the thing: Even if it didn’t last (because human beings chose otherwise), at least for a time, Jesus came into a war zone and brought about Peace on Earth.

It was a miracle.

And it can happen again.

Chances are that as you’re reading this you’re living in some kind of “war zone.” Conflict in your marriage. Conflict in your church. Conflict in your family.

Conflict over the election, the lockdowns, the mask orders, etc. etc. etc.

I’m not promising that Jesus will fix all of that overnight. But I do believe in the power of a simple focus on Jesus to usher in Peace–even if it’s just for a few moments.

This year many of our Christmas celebrations are going to be way more simple than in years past. That might be a good thing. It might be a chance for us to experience the power of simplicity.

Tonight and tomorrow, however you celebrate, remember the miracle of “Silent Night.”

And may you experience Peace as you focus on Jesus.