Saturday, December 24, 2016

'Silent Night'

Outside it is cold and windy, and darkness has blown over lawns, across walks and into deep drifts near buildings. The darkness is chilled by the heavy snows of an early winter, and is enough to make the weary soul ache for bed and a thick blanket. To anyone unfortunate enough to be outside by themselves, it's a lonely enough to burden the soul.

Inside the tiny church, it's a different story.

There the lights have been dimmed by choice, and the air is filled with the rustle of children like the wings of impatient angels. Above and below this susurrant murmur the organist plays an unending and nameless tune as the congregation and the minister grow silent and wait. In a moment, God will draw near and this unassuming neighborhood church will be transfigured.

It begins slowly. As the notes of the organ sort themselves into place a light the size of a single candle springs into life under the watchful eyes of the pulpit. In a moment it spreads to another candle, and then to another, and another. As the light spreads throughout the church and a hundred candles push back against the dark, the organ begins to play “Silent Night.” A holy Presence fills the room.

This is the first Christmas Eve service I can remember. It ran from 10:30 p.m. until just past midnight. I was 6 years old.

“Silent Night.” If there is a single Christmas carol that captures the wonder and the joy of Christmas, this is it. Composed in Austria in the 19th century with a simple guitar arrangement, it arrived in the world barely a month past the end of World War I. More than 17 million people had died in the war, including an estimated 7 million civilians, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

In the midst of that carnage – quite literally, since its lyricst, Father Joseph Mohr, had written the song at the height of the war two years earlier – “Silent Night” described a moment when peace as perfect and as restful as a lullaby had come to earth.

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.

Silent night, holy night,
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia! to the king.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

It's easy to crack wise about silence and the site of the Nativity. The manger Jesus was born in most likely was a cave and not the barn that serves as a staple of contemporary fancy and imagination, and silence seems unlikely for a family with a newborn in any setting, let alone one where livestock are likely to disturb them.

Nor was the peace of the era of a sort most would treasure. The Romans guaranteed order, not harmony; and kept that order by suppressing dissent. Herod the Great, king of Judea at the time Christ was born, was known for his own excess of brutality, to the point that the historian Josephus recounts an occasion where Herod had his own son strangled to death at dinner.

But the peace celebrated in “Silent Night” belongs to a higher order than the pax Romana or the stringent load set upon the vanquished by the Treaty of Versailles. In the Christmas story reported in the gospels we have the beginning of the marriage of heaven and earth, where glory is made known to the outcast, and the mighty stand still with wonder.

The peace that Christ offers is real peace: peace with one's self and peace with God, so that one may act with abandon and seek peace on earth as well.

In Christmas, as in “Silent Night,” we have a moment of respite, where something as mundane as listening to an old song played on an organ can be transformed into a holy moment where the Transcendent intrudes into the commonplace and creates an anchor point for a new life.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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