Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris in Ossory on Wednesday, 7th December 2011
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14
Sometimes, when you discover that the answer is disappointing, you wish you had never asked a question. ‘Silent Night’, for me, was a carol with a lovely story attached to it. The story I was told was that Joseph Mohr, the parish priest of the little Austrian village of Oberndorf, went to his church on Christmas Eve to prepare for the Midnight Mass and discovered that mice had chewed through the bellows of the church organ and that there would be no musical accompaniment for that evening’s service. So he turned to his friend Franz Gruber and together they wrote the words and music of ‘Stille Nacht’, with the music being played on a guitar, and that it was sung for the first time that Christmas Eve.
Apparently, the first mention of a broken church organ was in a book published in the United States almost 90 years later. The carol was first performed at Saint Nicholas’ Church in Oberndorf on 24th December 1818, but Father Mohr had written the words two years earlier. He did bring the words to Gruber that day and ask if he would compose a melody and guitar accompaniment, but there is no mention of mice. The story of the broken church organ later developed from the fact that Mohr was looking for musical composition at very short notice, and, presumably, in a snowy Austrian winter in the Salzburg region, mice chewing through the leather bellows of the organ would not have been impossible. It might just be that Mohr, on an impulse, decided it would be good to have a new carol for Christmas—clergy are prone to ask for things at very short notice!
As is the case with many hymns and carols, the inspiration for the music of ‘Silent Night’ came from the musical traditions of the area. Gruber’s composition worked with the people of the parish that Christmas Eve because it reflected a genre with which they were familiar. It is a signpost for church musicians in any time that the hymns that tend to gain an abiding place in people’s hearts are those that build upon the traditions that are already established tradition has tradition because it is something that people have embraced.
Josef Mohr’s ability to write a carol which would a place in the hearts of ordinary people around the world perhaps stemmed from his own background. He was the child of a single mother, who worked as an embroiderer. His father, Franz Mohr, was a soldier who deserted the army and his mother before he was born.
A generous sponsor helped him through his education and, being illegitimate, he needed a Papal dispensation to study for the priesthood. Ordained in 1815, he was sent to the Alpine village of Mariapfarr, where he wrote the words of his carol. He was moved to Oberdorf in 1817 and from there became parish priest of the town of Wagrain.
Josef Mohr never forgot his own humble origins and worked hard on behalf of the poor in Wagrain, founding a new school for children, creating a fund to allow children from poor families to attend, and starting a system for the care of the elderly. He died in 1848, at the age of 56. His greatest abiding gift to ordinary people would be his Christmas carol.
Moving forward ninety-six years, from 24th December 1818 until 24th December 1914, ‘Stille Nacht’/’Silent Night’ becomes the song of the common man. Trapped in the futile slaughter of trench warfare, on Christmas Eve 1914, the German soldiers at Ypres began decorating their trenches with candles, some even put up Christmas trees. They began to sing Christmas carols and the words of ‘Stille Nacht’ reached the ears of the British soldiers in their trenches on the other side of No Man’s Land. They joined in with the singing, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’. On Christmas Day 1914 as many as 100,000 men along the front came up out of their trenches and met each other amongst the mud and the barbed wire. It caused fury amongst the generals who issued orders forbidding such fraternisation, but it demonstrated that the war was not a matter of hatred between ordinary people. The words of a gentle and humble Austrian priest enabled one of the most extraordinary moments in history.
What is it in the carol that has such power, that enables it to take a place deep within our memories? It has gone through many translations and is generally shorter now than the original six verses written by Josef Mohr, but there are certain thoughts, certain images that capture the imagination.
‘Stille’, ‘Silent’ – there is something in quietness that leaves us open to spiritual things. In the Gospels, Jesus seeks quietness, seeks moments away from all the clamour and all the noise, seeks moments when there is a chance to hear things that are drowned out by the world around.
We live in a world that does not want us to be quiet, that will bombard us with noise at every moment. Quietness helps us reflect, to ask questions, to take time to see things differently; the last thing wanted by those who want to sell us a materialist version world is that we should stop and think. Imagine those soldiers standing there in the mud and misery of 1914, the silence of that Christmas Eve would have been profound, it would have made them ask many questions.
In Scripture, if we think of Psalm 46, God urges us to be quiet, to be still, to sense his presence. ‘Silent Night’ even for those who were not religious, for those who are not religious, suggests that time for reflection, for thought is needed. When we start thinking, then we ask questions and in asking questions we find the truth.
‘Heilige’, ‘Holy’ – holiness is one of those things that is indefinable, it is like love, you know when it is there, but there are no words adequate to provide a description. ‘Holy night’ captures a sense of the feeling that something special has happened, yet what it is and what it means is beyond our words. We have lost a sense of the ‘holy’, in a world filled with the superficial and the trivial and the pointless, we have lost a sense of those things beyond our understanding. Sometimes, as with the men in the battlefields of Flanders, it is in the extreme moments that we have a sense of being in the presence of something beyond our comprehension.
‘Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’, ‘Because now the hour of salvation strikes for us’ or ‘With the dawn of redeeming grace,’ as it is translated in the Church of Ireland hymnal. The hour, the dawn, there is a sense of a moment of fulfilment, a moment of redemption, that life is heading somewhere, that something has been present with us, but is also still to come.
The idea of purpose in life runs counter to our culture which sees us as being born to consume and then to die. The idea that fulfilment is not in the new house, or new car, or new whatever, asks about the priorities of the world around us. To suggest that Christmas is not about the things in the advertisements, but is about a moment in Bethlehem when this child comes to save us from what we are, would just get you strange looks, but it is a statement of purpose, that no matter what things are like now, a new day will dawn; that the saviour comes down to pull us up from where we are trapped. Had we been there in 1914, we would have prayed desperately for the dawning of that new day.
Silence, holiness, the hour of salvation—Josef Mohr captures thoughts that are both timeless and immediate. May we find the silent and the holy in the coming weeks.