Summary: Is peace possible at Christmas, if not, I wonder if it was really peaceful on the 1st Christmas?
Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.
Whenever Christmas carols are sung, this hymn is sure to be among them, for it has long been one of the best loved. For me, as I’m sure for many of you, it just doesn’t seem like Christmas Eve until we sing Silent Night.
One of the many LEGENDS about the origin of this Christmas carol has it being created out of a catastrophe! The folk tale has it that it was Christmas Eve in the snowy hills of Austria when the assistant minister named Joseph Mohr of a small church near Salzburg discovered that his church’s organ had broken down. Without the organ, how would the choir sing its special anthems? How would the congregation be able to sing their favorite carols? The Christmas Eve service would be a disaster without music! Mohr turned for help to his choirmaster and organist, Franz Gruber. Together, with Mohr creating the words and Gruber composing the lovely music, they created a special song for Christmas Eve that could be played on a guitar. The choir taught the song to the congregation, and a Christmas tradition was born!
One of the reasons I believe this hymn is so beloved is because it pictures a "perfect" Christmas! The kind of Christmas we all say we want but often never get. Recently, on a December 6th, between morning services, two adult classes sat together around a little Christmas tree in a fellowship hall and listed what would be for them the "perfect" Christmas. There were many smiles and laughs when one after another spoke of wanting perfectly behaved children….. disaster-proof meals which cleaned themselves up…… piles of fresh white snow that magically caused no delays in travel……gifts unwrapped in an orderly and neat fashion……. and church services filled with favorite carols and a very short but meaningful sermon. Sounds ideal doesn’t it? Or maybe idealistic?
We all know the reality of Christmas is often far from the ideal. Children get cranky. Dishes pile up. Part D doesn’t seem to fit into Slot A the way it is shown in the instructions. The soloist for the Christmas Eve service comes down with laryngitis. Then there’s that last minute dash to buy a present for an unexpected guest, while closed roads keep Aunt Sue, Uncle Al and their 5 children from coming home for Christmas. Sound more familiar?
Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright...
Reading the birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel, makes me wonder if this hymn really does describes that first Christmas Eve?....... Caesar Augustus had declared that everyone must return to their hometown for a census of the Empire. Can you imagine the disruption that caused?........ Picture how crowded the highways, railroads and airports would be if such a requirement had been placed on our 2000 census! Paintings and movies often show Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem through an empty wilderness……. It was probably more like I-55 or I-39 on the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend! The route from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been jammed with travelers. Travel would have been even more difficult for a 9 months pregnant woman in that crowd.
When they finally reached Bethlehem, Joseph & Mary would have found it packed to the rafters with earlier arrivals. Whole families would have arrived with children and servants. As not everyone could fit in the available rooms, courtyards would be bustling with fires and cooks as well as people trying to sleep. Peace and quiet would be the last thing one would find in Bethlehem that night!
Stables would have been filled with the caravan animals of all these travelers. The space available for a young couple expected their first child would have been limited. And once Mary went into labor, calm and peace would completely disappear. Since men rarely helped with such events, Joseph probably got one of the older servant women from the inn’s courtyard to assist Mary. She would not have come alone but brought other women with her. First Mary’s birthing cries, then a newborn’s cry and finally the trilling songs of women celebrating a successful birth would have broken through whatever peace and quiet existed in Bethlehem that evening. According to custom, the baby would have been washed, rubbed with salt and then wrapped tightly, like a mummy, with long strips of cloth. The manger he was placed in would have been a rough-hewn ledge of stone perhaps softened a bit by hay and grain. Joseph would have been waiting at the courtyard fire with the other men for news of the successful birth. There would have been much celebrating and shouts of congratulations to Joseph on the birth of a first-born son. There would have been little rest for either Mary or Joseph or baby Jesus that evening.