Silent Night

There’s a legend from the first Christmas of World War I. I think most of us have heard it. It tells us that deep in the night of December 24, 1914, in the trenches of the western front, a homesick German soldier began to quietly sing the Christmas carol he knew best—Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. Soon, other soldiers lying near him in their foxholes began to join in, until the strains were loud enough to be heard across the no man’s land that lay between the Germans and their British enemies. The Brits, of course, recognized the tune. Only they called the song Silent Night, and they joined in the singing. Things suddenly changed between the two sides when they realized that they were both longing to celebrate the birth of Christ, and that they were both singing the same song. One brave soul rose from the trenches. Then another, and another, until every man had left their position of relative safety to enter the visibility of no man’s land. And just like that, an unofficial truce was being observed. Food was shared, prisoners exchanged, soccer played, and enemies forgot why they were fighting. It was a Christmas miracle.

I don’t know if the part about the singing of one particular Christmas carol is factual, but the rest of it is true. And the generals saw to it that it could never happen again. But until somebody proves to me that it wasn’t all started by Silent Night, I’ll continue to believe it was. Because why not? What other song might have had that power over both sides? Though all Christians know the story of Christ’s birth, what other song gives us the shared language to tell it to people we can’t otherwise understand?

And it’s that song I want us to remember tonight, for this is its bicentennial. It was two hundred years ago tonight—December 24, 1818—that a tune written by Franz Gruber was first paired with words by Josef Mohr in a tiny village named Oberndorf, near Salzburg, in the mountains of Austria. As a kid, I remember being told that this was because mice had damaged the little village church’s organ. Apparently it was actually a flood. But no matter, the organ really was damaged that Christmas Eve, and so Mohr asked his friend in a neighboring town to compose a tune for guitar.

The song was an immediate hit, and by the following Christmas, it was being spread across the region by a traveling musical band. Early on it was sung in the presence of German-speaking royalty, and within twenty years had reached America. Now it’s at least as popular in English-speaking countries as it is in German-speaking ones. And probably nearly as popular in many other languages, as well.

We’re going to sing this song—as we always do (at least in churches I serve)—a little later on when we share the light of the Christ candle. But let’s anticipate that sharing as we gather round the table. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of Christ’s death. But tonight, why can’t it be a telling of the good news of his birth? Just as the physical elements of bread and wine help us understand a message that seems to be beyond human language’s ability to convey, a Christmas carol that’s sung in so many tongues seems an excellent way to tell a story that might otherwise get lost in translation. Namely, that when the whole world was silent, when humanity was clueless, when the principalities and powers were asleep in their palaces, God came among us, and a peace that still surpasses understanding descended upon humankind.

The night of Christ’s birth was only the beginning of the story, of course. The Babe in the manger grew to manhood and did not remain silent. His teachings challenged the status quo and showed us the way God intended us to be human. And finally, on the night before he died, he gathered around a table for one final meal with his followers. As the supper began, Jesus took a loaf of bread, gave thanks for it, and as he shared it with his disciples, said, “This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And in the same way, as the supper ended, he shared with them a cup of wine, saying, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Thus, just as God entered human history in the birth of Christ, so Christ remains with us through the supper. So come. Know that Christ is one of us, and that it is Christ who invites us to the table. Righteous or sinful, rich or poor, respectable or despised, powerful or week—no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re as welcome here as the shepherds were at the manger, as sinners were in Christ’s presence, as the thieves were at his crucifixion. Here we are received, accepted, loved, and strengthened to spread the message that, like the enemies who forgot why they were fighting on Christmas Eve 1914, our striving is unnecessary, peace on earth has been declared, and in the silence of this night, the God who was far away has come within arm’s reach. May we embrace him in love as we receive the bread and the wine.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.