Silent Night

Christmas 2015

While doing research at Emory University’s Pitts Theology Library some years ago, I came across a series of journal articles on the history of various Christmas carols by William E. Studwell, who was an assistant professor in the University Libraries, Northern Illinois University. During his lifetime (1936-2010), he invested over 6,000 hours studying and presenting the history of the carols. I was so intrigued by his work, that I phoned him and had a delightful conversation about the very carols that had been such an important part of my own celebrations of Christmas and worship since childhood.

Unfortunately, there is no firm documentation about the events surrounding Silent Night. According to one legend, the mice did it [Studwell maintains it was “everyday, common, ordinary rust”]. The furry little creatures made a feast of the bellows of the organ in a little church, St. Nicholas’, near Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Oberndorf was a quaint little village 11 miles away. The persistent gnawing crippled the instrument and rendered it useless. A disappointed and troubled parish priest, Father Josef Mohr (1792-1848), felt compelled to act. Christmas was fast approaching. So he went to his organist and schoolmaster, Franz Gruber (1787-1863), for help. “We must have something special for midnight mass,” he pleaded.

It was December, 1818.

Two days before Christmas, Father Mohr was called to administer last rites to a dying woman. Night had fallen; it was late when he was returning home. As he came to a ridge overlooking the town, he stopped to reflect. Snow-covered mountains towered above him. In the valley below, a faint, dark outline of the village was barely discernible. From one house, and then another, faint lights glimmered in the dark. Vast stillness! No televisions blinking and blaring. No cars, trains, or airplanes making their noisy ways to final destinations. No factories working overtime. Not even one seducing neon light inviting villagers to shop.

All was calm.

Suddenly, this good man murmured to himself, “It must have been something like this – that silent, holy night in Bethlehem.”

One of those special moments had come. Father Mohr was powerfully affected. An encounter with the Holy. He stood in still silence.

God’s people handle these encounters in different ways. Moses resisted: “I can’t speak.” Mary, the Mother of our Lord, questioned: “How can this be?” Jonah ran. Father Mohr hurried home.

He sat at his desk and wrote…and wrote…and wrote.

It was very late when he arose for bed; the now-famous carol was finished.

He had stopped his work, as all wise men and women do when God says, “Enough.” Can you picture him leaning back in his chair? Perhaps a sense of satisfaction and fullness came over him, or that deep, tranquil state of mind that comes when God makes his presence known. Could it be that he was overcome with joy unspeakable, the kind of joy that Jesus promised the Twelve? Guesswork, all of it! No historical records. No diary. What we do know is that after he penned the final word and the inspired ink began to dry, we are told he read it once…and then again before retiring for the evening. Peering over his shoulder, we notice the first line written in his native tongue: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.

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.

Silent night, holy night,

Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing alleluia;
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

When he awoke the next morning, he picked up his manuscript, re-read it, and hurried over to see his friend Franz Gruber. As soon as Gruber heard the words, “inner voices seemed to fill his humble quarters with an angelic chorus.” He sang it to his wife. Her response was prophetic: “We will die – you and I – but this song will live.”

We can say with assurance that the organ was silent on Christmas Eve in the little church in Oberndorf. But the people living in the village would not be deterred; they assembled for worship. Father Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber, accompanying him on the guitar, sang the hallowed strains of “Silent Night” for the first time in public. The people were silent and enthralled. It was obvious that a special gift had been given to the Christ Child on his birthday. Today, almost two centuries later, we recognize that the Lord of glory, the true Author of the carol, met with Josef Mohr on that silent night in order to provide for his bride, the Church, yet one more heavenly chorus to sing in silent wonder and worship. For, indeed, in his birth, sinless life, death, and resurrection, we have personally witnessed the “dawn of redeeming grace.” If you do not know him as your Savior and Lord, or if you do, the call is the same: Give heed to Mohr’s third stanza and behold him who is the Son of God, “love’s pure light.” Do homage to your King and bow in humble adoration before him whose “holy face” radiates beams of redeeming love.

Download a PDF of this essay.

Return to John’s Essays