Luke 2:1-20

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Christmas Gift From The Past

Author: Per Ola and Emily D’Aulaire

Snow fell softly onto the wooden and stone houses of Oberndorf, an Austrian village near Salzburg. Inside, villagers decorated freshly hewn spruce trees with candles, fruit and nuts as they prepared for the holiest of nights. Soon bells would peal from Oberndorf’s modest church to announce midnight Mass, and the faithful would celebrate the birth of Christ with prayer and song.

Within the Church of St. Nicholas, however, the mood was hardly one of joy that Christmas Eve afternoon in 1818. Curate Joseph Mohr, 26, had just discovered that the organ was badly damaged. No matter how hard the pedals were pumped, he could coax only a scratchy wheeze from the ancient instrument. Mohr was desperate. By the time a repairman could reach the parish, Christmas would be long over. To the young curate, a Christmas without music was unthinkable.

Mohr had a natural instinct for music. As a boy, the illegitimate son of a seamstress and a soldier, he had earned money singing and playing the violin and guitar in public. At school, and then at the university, he lived on money he earned as a performer. His hard work and talent caught the attention of a clergyman who persuaded Mohr to enter the seminary. Ordained a priest in 1815, Mohr was posted to Oberndorf in 1817. There, he not only preached the Psalms, but surprised some of his congregation by strumming a guitar, switching easily from folk music to hymns.

Now, faced with a Christmas crisis, the young cleric withdrew to the quiet of his study. Realizing that the traditional Christmas carols would not sound right on a guitar, he decided to produce a new song. Bending over a sheet of blank paper, his quill pen poised, he thought about a parish family he had recently visited to bless their newborn child. The memory of that mother holding her infant wrapped snugly against the winter cold took Mohr’s thoughts to another modest birth almost two thousand years earlier.

Tentatively, he began writing. His pen moved as if guided by an invisible hand. A haunting refrain, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!” appeared on the paper: “Silent night, holy night.” In phrases as simple as a children’s poem, the young curate told of the Christmas miracle in six stanzas. It was as if the words flowed directly from heaven.

Time was growing short when he finished. The verses still had to be set to music in time for midnight Mass. Mohr decided to seek out his good friend Franz Xaver Gruber, 31, the schoolmaster at nearby Arnsdorf, and a more skilled composer than he was.

Unlike Mohr, Gruber had had to hide his passion for music. To his strict father, a weaver, music was not a suitable profession for putting bread on the table. So in the evening, Franz would creep out of the house to take music lessons from the local schoolmaster. He did so well that when his father heard him playing the organ one day, the elder Gruber relented and let his son study music.

Franz decided to become a teacher as well. In those days a schoolmaster was expected to serve as organist and choirmaster at a local church. Sent to Arnsdorf to teach, Gruber had been welcomed at neighboring St. Nicholas.

That Christmas Eve, according to historians who pieced together the story, Mohr visited Gruber and his large family at their modest living quarters above the school. Mohr told his friend of his dilemma. Handing over his newly written words, Mohr asked Gruber whether he could compose a tune to fit them, suitable for two voices, chorus and guitar, and in time for midnight Mass.

As Gruber read Father Mohr’s words, he was surely struck by their beauty and innocence. He went to his piano to begin work while Mohr returned to his church.

Drawing on three of the most basic harmonies in the musical repertoire, the organist wove a plain, hauntingly evocative melody. Then he took it to Father Mohr late that evening. With barely time for a rehearsal, the two men agreed that Mohr would play his guitar and sing tenor while Gruber sang bass. Following each stanza, the church chorus would chime in on the refrain.

At midnight, parishioners filed in, probably expecting the organ to fill the church with the resounding notes of Christmas hymns. Instead, the building was silent as they crowded into the narrow wooden pews.

Father Mohr stepped into the nave and beckoned the schoolmaster to stand by his side. Holding his guitar, the curate must have explained to the assembled flock that, although the organ was broken, the midnight Mass would include music nonetheless: he and Gruber had prepared a special Christmas song for the congregation.

With Mohr strumming the guitar, two mellow voices soon filled the church. The choir joined in four-part harmony at each refrain. The parishioners listened in awe to a carol that was as pure and fresh as an Alpine stream. Then Mohr proceeded with the celebration of the Mass, and the congregation knelt in prayer. Christmas Eve at St. Nicholas had been a success.

The story almost ended there. Mohr and Gruber had created their carol as a stopgap for a temporary problem and probably had no thoughts of performing the song again. The following spring, a repairman patched up the organ. Soon Mohr was transferred to a different parish. For a few years, the carol fell as silent as the night it had glorified in 1818.

But luckily for the world, the organ at St. Nicholas remained cantankerous. In 1824 or ’25, the parish hired a master organ builder by the name of Carl Mauracher to reconstruct it. During his time in the loft, Mauracher happened upon the song that Mohr and Gruber had composed. Its universal simplicity must have appealed to the old organ master. Overseeing work on the St. Nicholas organ, Gruber gladly gave his consent when Mauracher requested a copy of “Silent Night.”

On leaving Oberndorf, Mauracher carried the song with him. People who heard it through him were enchanted with the words and melody. Soon troupes of Tyrolean folk singers, who regularly fanned out over Europe, added “Silent Night” to their repertoires.

Among those who did were the Strasser Family. These four brothers and sisters with angelic voices performed at trade fairs while peddling gloves made by the family. In 1831 or ’32, the Strassers sang “Silent Night” at a fair in Leipzig, Germany. Audiences loved it. Not long after, a local publisher printed it for the first time, identifying it only as Tirolerlied, or a Tyrolean song. There was no mention of Joseph Mohr or Franz Gruber.

The words and tune now spread rapidly. Soon “Silent Night” crossed the Atlantic with the Rainers, a family of folk singers performing and traveling in the United States. In New York City in 1839 or ’40, the Rainers introduced the English-speaking world to the song.

Audiences everywhere began to believe that “Silent Night” was more than a simple folk song. Some listeners attributed it to one of the Haydns. But in their villages, Gruber and Mohr remained unaware of the stir their song was creating. Father Mohr died of pneumonia, penniless, in 1848 at the age of 55. He never learned that his song had reached some of Earth’s farthest corners. Gruber heard of the song’s success only in 1854, when the concertmaster for King Frederick William IV of Prussia began searching for its source. When word reached Gruber, then 67, he sent a letter to Berlin telling the origins of the song.

At first, few scholars believed that two humble men could have dreamed up such a popular Christmas carol. When Gruber died in 1863, his authorship was still challenged. That same year, the Rev. John Freeman Young, who later became Episcopal Bishop of Florida, translated three stanzas of the carol into the English verses we still sing today.

There is no longer any controversy over the authorship of the original song. Memorials in Austria pay tribute to Mohr and Gruber, and their legacy has become an essential part of Christmas everywhere. Says William E. Studwell of Northern Illinois University, an expert on Christmas carols, ” ‘Silent Night’ is the musical symbol of Christmas.”

Indeed, the carol is now sung on every continent in the world in scores of languages, from the original German to Welsh, from Swahili to Afrikaans, from Japanese to Russian–all expressing the same deep feelings of peace and joy. It has been recorded by singers from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley.

Over the years, the simple carol has shown a profound power to create heavenly peace. During the Christmas truce of 1914, for example, German soldiers in the trenches along the Western Front began singing “Silent Night.” From the other side of no man’s land, British soldiers joined in.

During the same war, at a Siberian prison camp, German, Austrian and Hungarian prisoners broke into a chorus of “Silent Night.” With tears in his eyes, the Russian commandant told his prisoners in broken German, “Tonight is the first time in more than a year of war that I have been able to forget you and I are supposed to be enemies.”

In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1944, a German officer visiting an orphanage asked if any of the children knew “Silent Night” in German. A boy and a girl walked hesitatingly forward, then began to sing “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.” The officer smiled, but then the children stopped singing, as if suddenly remembering something, and looked terrified. In that part of the country, it was primarily Jews who knew German. Seeing their fear, the officer comforted them. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. He, too, had been touched by the magic of the song.

Seven years later, on a Christmas Eve during the Korean War, a young American soldier named John Thorsness was on guard duty when he thought he heard the enemy approach. Finger on the trigger, he watched a crowd of Koreans emerge from the darkness. They were smiling. As the young soldier stood in amazement, the group sang “Silent Night”–in Korean–just for him. Then they melted back into the darkness.

We have our own “Silent Night” memory, dating back to the first Christmas Eve we celebrated in our Congregational church in Redding, Conn. When we entered, a deacon handed us each a small white candle.

At the end of an hour of carols and Bible readings, the church lights were dimmed. The minister lit a taper from an altar candle, and walked to two people in the front pew. They, in turn, lit the candles next to them.

Seated in the rear, we watched as a wave of flickering light spread from pew to pew. Then the organ began to play, and the congregation joined in the song born Christmas Eve so many miles and so many years ago: “Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright….”

When the last verse had ended, everyone stood absolutely still in the glow of candlelight. The haunting words and simple melody lingered in our hearts, just as they have lingered in the hearts of people throughout the world since a young priest and his schoolmaster friend first sang it 175 years ago.

Mary Did You Know

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Silent Night

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