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Silent Night

Dr. Ray Pritchard
Dr. Ray Pritchard
2015 2 Dec

“While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to have the baby, and she gave birth to her first son” (Luke 2:6-7 NCV).

No matter what you’ve heard, a mouse had nothing to do with it.

The story goes like this. In 1816 Joseph Mohr wrote “Stille Nacht” as a poem in Mariapfarr, Austria. Two years later Mohr had become the assistant pastor at the Church of Saint Nicholas in Oberndorf. According to legend, the church organ broke down on Christmas Eve. Desperate for music for the service that night, he gave his two-year-old poem to his friend and local schoolteacher Franz Gruber, who composed a melody for guitar (since the organ was broken). Remarkably, he completed the music in time for the Christmas Eve service.

Now that’s the basic story, and it may be true. The part about the broken organ was added later. And someone embellished the story by adding the detail that a mouse got inside the organ and ate the bellows.

Here’s what we know. Mohr wrote the words and Gruber composed the melody. We also know it was written first for guitar, not for the organ. As the story goes, the hymn would have remained obscure except for the organ repairman who heard “Silent Night” and began to spread the word about this new Christmas carol. The song gained popularity when a singing family called the Strassers performed 'Stille Nacht' at a Leipzig concert in 1832. It came to America when the Rainer family first performed the carol outside Trinity Church in New York City in 1839. It has been translated into 300 languages and dialects. Today it is regarded as the most popular Christmas carol in the world. Its peaceful tones can be heard in outdoor candlelight services, house churches in China, and in magnificent cathedrals.

Mohr and Gruber had no idea a song written for a small parish church would spread across the world. In contrast to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” evokes the quiet intimacy of a young couple with their sleeping baby. Yet this is not just any baby. He is the “holy infant” whose birth brings “the dawn of redeeming grace.” Even in the manger, he is “Christ the Savior” and “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”

The first verse sets the tone:

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

In 1859, the Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, then serving Trinity Church in New York City, produced the translation we use today. In 1914, during the Christmas Truce of World War 1, German and English troops joined in singing “Silent Night” on the battlefield because it was the one carol soldiers on both sides knew.

Let’s listen to this beautiful version by the all-boy English group Libera.

Lord, in these busy days, may I never be too busy for you. I pray that I may walk in “love’s pure light” so that others may see Jesus in me. Amen.  

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