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!
As you may have heard, "Silent Night" celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. Composed by Fr. Joseph Mohr, a German priest, and set to music by his friend Franz Xavier Gruber, the carol was first performed at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 1818, by the two, strummed out on guitars because the church organ was broken. It is one of the loveliest of carols and a perennial favorite.
But it was not composed to be the popular holiday hit that it has become. Rather it was first Mohr's private reflection, a poem written in the midst of the warfare and strife that followed the collapse of Napoleon, reflecting how God quietly enters our world, so much in contrast to the assertions of the earthly powers. One is reminded of God's visitation of Elijah in which God was to be found in none of the signs of power—the great storm, the earthquake, the fire—but only in the still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13). Or of the visit of the three angels to Abraham and Sarah, so quiet that God can hear the ancient Sarah laugh at the thought of having a baby (Genesis 18:1-15). Yet this gentleness was powerful enough to bridge the vast gulf between the trenches in the Christmas Truce of 1914.
It should not surprise us that we live in an age of storm, earthquake, and fire, it has ever been thus. The great powers of the earth will always bluster and threaten. And so will the small powers—those that dwell in each of us. But the truth is that nothing will be accomplished there; salvation will not be found in my rages or my fits, even when I do get my way. In a world that is divided into allies and enemies there can be no reconciliation, no peace. For the triumph of the one or the other is never a conversion of the heart, and it is only in such a conversion that a lasting peace, a true justice will be found.
That perhaps is why the way of God is so different, so quiet. God does not seek to conquer us, only to win us. Such is the way of love. Caesar in Rome did not quake on his throne that silent night, nor did the high and mighty of nearby Jerusalem take notice, only a few poor shepherds and some old men who watched the distant voiceless stars shimmering in the cold sky.
And if that is God's way, it is worth reflecting what perhaps we might learn from it. That it is perhaps in the silence, not in the shows of power, that we will find grace.
So that is my prayer for us, one and all, at the end of this Advent season, and on this eve of Christmas—in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, in the midst of the blustering and threats of the earthly powers, in the midst of the allies and enemies of this world, a few moments of gentle quiet, of peace. It might be in the night under the stars, or before the twinkling of the tree. Or perhaps walking the dog, or strolling with a loved one. Or after Communion. Just a few moments to listen for that still small voice, that cry of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, there being no room in the inn. That call of our salvation.
Merry Christmas, and all blessings for a Joyous New Year.
Lord, grant us each the time and the space to listen for you. And grant that hearing you, we may offer the gift of your peace and your love to all whom we encounter. Amen.
Sincerely in Christ,
Rev. James R. Van Dyke, S.J.