On Christmas Eve, 202 years ago, two men, a priest and a musical composer, entered a small church in the alpine village of Oberndorf, just south of Salzburg, Austria, for Christmas Mass. That night they sang a Christmas carol, the lyrics of which the priest, Fr. Joseph Mohr, had written, and the melody of which the composer, Franz Gruber, had composed.
Fr. Mohr most likely played the guitar, as it is said that the church organ was not working, and the melody was composed for guitar accompaniment. The carol they sang was “Silent Night,” a Christmas song that has since become famous and beloved around the world, and this was the first time it was ever sung.
Christmas caroling in a snowy Alpine village sounds very beautiful, very tranquil. The song itself is like a lullaby for the Baby Jesus, though Gruber’s melody was somewhat different from the one we use today, so it is easy to imagine how sublime it was to be present in that church that night.
In fact, though the song and the setting were undoubtedly peaceful, Fr. Mohr wrote the song at a tumultuous time for his village, and for all of Europe. The Napoleonic Wars had recently ended, so Europe no longer lived under the threat of conquest — a still new experience of peace. Also, in the summer of the year Fr. Mohr wrote “Silent Night,” there was a frightening darkness that lasted all day, every day, causing famine and poverty throughout the land. And the people did not even have the comfort of knowing what was causing the darkness, which was later found to be caused by ash from a volcanic eruption in Indonesia.
Just less than a century later, in 1914, during World War I, when the Allied and German armies declared a truce so that they could celebrate Christmas, the song the two armies sang together was “Silent Night.”
All of this is a reminder that when we sing that the Christ Child “sleep(s) in heavenly peace,” it really is heavenly peace we are talking about. It is heavenly peace we experience at Christmas as well. It does not mean that everything is going great in our earthly lives.
Here we find the Good News of Christmas for all of us living through the often-brutal year of 2020.
A global pandemic, violence and social unrest, a contentious and even at times hateful election season — all of these forces have conspired against our peace of heart. We all come to this year’s celebration of Christmas longing for peace. Often, people have tried looking everywhere they can think of for that peace and have not found it.
And when a person is already frustrated, has already tried every remedy the world has to offer, to tell him that what he needs to do is look to a baby for the help he needs, frustration can turn to bitterness very quickly.
That is where the last words of “Silent Night” — “Jesus, Lord at thy birth” — and the last words of one of the Gospel readings appointed for Christmas Mass — “and he named him Jesus” — help us understand what is going on in the Nativity scene.
Joseph has the privilege of naming Jesus, and that name was given to Joseph from God himself. It is a name full of meaning. The name Jesus means, “God saves.” This name says something about who this Child already is and about his destiny. When we look at most babies, it is fun and even fascinating to think about what the baby might grow up to be. But we don’t know what he or she will become. We can only guess.
But Jesus is Lord at his birth. The Son of God has come to live among us; he has become one of us. Christ was born during the Pax Romana, a time of relative peace in the Roman Empire after a time of war and tumult. The emperor Augustus during those years identified himself as divine, and also gave himself the title “salvator mundi,” or “savior of the world.” But the Pax Romana would end, not so very far into the future. And the Roman Empire would fall in the fifth century. And Caesar Augustus died, saving neither the world nor himself, for all the good he did in this life.
Jesus comes as the true Savior of the World, the One who brings true peace. At a time when the whole known world was united under one ruler and by one dominant culture, the true King of the Universe was born in the “little town of Bethlehem.” He was the fulfillment of all that people hoped for in the Roman Empire, and more. He was also the fulfillment of all the Jewish people hoped for. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy, we see that Jesus is said to be a descendent of Abraham and of David. That means that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish faith and their hopes for the everlasting king promised by God.
Jesus will tell Pilate on Good Friday, “My kingdom is not of this world.” His power and the peace He brings do not come in obvious, worldly terms. But that does not make His power or peace any less real. In fact, even the pagan philosophers of the ancient world — take Plato, for example — knew that the spiritual is the more real, and the physical is of secondary importance.
We all love to look at and pray in front of Nativity scenes on Christmas, but we should not go too far in thinking of it as “cute.” It is beautiful in its simplicity, but its beauty communicates to us a mystery deeper than we will ever comprehend in this life. When we pray in front of the Nativity, when we offer the same Jesus in this Christmas Mass, and receive his Body and Blood, we would do well to pray these words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. They serve as a reminder of Christ’s power and peace, of his incredible humility and his love for all of us and for each of us, especially when we struggle the most. These words remind us that Jesus is our one true Savior and Lord:
“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
May the “silent night” of Christmas be calm and bright for all who believe in the Lord Jesus, and all of those we count as our beloved neighbors. As we celebrate the Word becoming flesh for our salvation, may the whole world come to know heavenly peace.
Fr. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.