Monday, December 19, 2016

Silent Night, Holy Night

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 1:18-25:

At the last church I served, our piano player fell and broke her hip on Christmas Eve. That is not, obviously, the ideal time to lose your main musician, and on top of that it also meant that I had to make a hospital visit that afternoon and the hospital was more than a half mile away. Now we did have an organist, but she was 92, and not as good as she once was. But one of the advantages of it happening Christmas Eve was the fact that most people know most of the songs that we will sing because they are ones we have been singing them seemingly for hundreds of years, so having someone play along is not as crucial. In fact, I would guess we could probably sing most of those songs acapella easily. But, obviously, it’s still not ideal, and it made me think of how Silent Night, Holy Night, came to be created.

Joseph Mohr was a Roman Catholic priest serving a small town in Austria. As an illegitimate child, Mohr did not have an easy life growing up and even had to get special permission to join the priesthood because of his birth status. But in 1816 he composed a poem that we all know today, although he didn’t actually use it until 1818. According to legend, on Christmas Eve Mohr walked three kilometers through the snow, I think it was uphill both ways, to present his poem to Franz Gruber, a musician in the next town, and asked him to write music for guitar for his poem. Gruber composed the tune that has only changed slightly in the 200 years since he wrote it in just a couple of hours. But, the story says, and this may only be apocryphal, that Mohr asked Gruber to write the music for guitar because the organ at the church that he served was broken, and thus they needed music that could be played on a guitar for the service, which they did, with Silent Night being performed that evening for the first time. A less than ideal circumstance.

Silent Night has gone on to become one of, if not the, most famous Christmas hymns. During the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 when British, French and German soldiers, of their own accord, stopped fighting and exchanged gifts and greetings with each other across the front lines, the one song they could all sing together was Silent Night, and in some places, it was one of the sides beginning to sing this hymn that started the truce. One of my favorite parts of the Christmas Truce story is that it only took place in 1914, because after it happened military leaders on both sides issued strong messages against fraternization, which basically said, “how dare you shake the hand of the person we want you to kill.” Peace on earth and good will and all that stuff.

But as much as we love Silent Night, and I do have to mention that we broke the tradition of it not being sung until Christmas Eve this morning, does Silent Night actually match reality, of our lives? I think that’s an important question to ask because it’s human nature to compare ourselves and our lives against others, and against what we hold us as the ideal. And so we hear Silent Night, and we imagine it with all the lights out and the candles glowing and everything is peaceful and beautiful. It’s calm and bright, silent and holy. We have this image in our mind and when we compare it to our lives, with hectic schedules and running around, and perhaps all the noise, both literal and proverbial, that surrounds Christmas we wonder what we are doing wrong? How come our Christmas is not like that? Perhaps we even beg for a time when everything might be silent, even for just 5 minutes. Or perhaps we have the exact opposite, that the silence of not hearing the voices of loved ones we have lost is oppressive. We long for the silence to go away. We long for just a moment to hear the chaos and the tumult of a house filled with loved lost and of Christmas’ past, and we wonder how come our Christmas is not like that? Not ideal circumstances.

But is Mohr’s famous song even a reality for that first Christmas? Was everything calm? Was everything silent? I highly doubt it. First let’s start with the reality of birth. Ladies, for those of you who gave birth naturally, and even for those who used and epidural, or had a C-section, was your birth quiet? Was it calm? Uh, no. It was anything but that. Now we also have to add onto that, that according to Luke, but not Matthew, that Mary had just walked 90 miles to Bethlehem, which can’t have added to her happiness, and the Bible says nothing about her riding a donkey, and since they were poor, the greater likelihood is that they didn’t have a donkey. But once in Bethlehem they would have been surrounded by barn yard animals and all the noises, and smells, they make.

Now maybe after the baby is born, and laying gently on your chest, or in the bassinet, there was some calm, and that glow that surrounds the entire moment of birth, was there. And perhaps that is what Mohr is talking about when he says “Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” Or something that occurred to me this week, as I was thinking about when my girls were infants, was that perhaps the last line was Mary’s prayer that every parent has made with an infant at some point of saying/praying, “Oh for God’s sake would you please go to sleep, please because I’m too exhausted to keep going, please sleep like an angel so I can go to sleep.” Now since he was a Catholic priest, Mohr never had any children of his own, so maybe I’m just reading that into the lyrics, but that’s what we get to do.

But it actually turns out that Mohr’s lyrics are not so silent themselves, because in the second verse we are told that the angels are quaking at the sight as the heavenly host, surrounded by beams of light are singing “alleluia.” I do not think they were doing this quietly, as if you are saying “God be praised” it’s something that we do loudly, we do it joyfully, we do it exuberantly, well maybe not all of us, but that’s how we should be doing it. There’s an exclamation point after it, for heaven’s sake, so it has to be done enthusiastically, and certainly not silently. And then in the fourth verse we are asked to join in with the angels in their singing, join in singing Alleluia! To our King. Again, this is not something we should be doing quietly, or melodically, or reverently, this is something we should be shouting from the rooftops. Praise be to God! Come here the good news! Christ is born! For us has been born in the city of David, a savior. The sky opened up, rays of light burst from the heavens, and the angels sang the song we are called to join, Alleluia! Christ the savior is born! Christ the savior is born!

We might say it’s a holy night, but we cannot, or should not say that it’s a silent night, because in this moment the world has been changed, the world has been turned upside down. This is not the time to be calm, this is the time to be filled with excitement. Now I’m not trying to ruin this hymn, and I don’t know what Mohr’s original thinking was, but I do want us to pay attention to the imagery that Mohr uses to understand his message and the message of Christmas, and that is the imagery of light. The shepherds are quaking, not just because of the singing of the angels, but more importantly because the darkness has been shattered by the sight of the glories streaming from heaven afar. This glorious light shining down on them as the angels appear. And in the fourth verse it’s the wondrous star that shines on us as we sing along with the angels.  But it’s the third verse that holds the theological punch. Mohr says “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.”  The incarnation is God being made flesh and coming to earth, not as some triumphant king riding a mighty steed, but as a baby, being born in manager, to poor parents, in less than ideal circumstances, and yet in that moment the world is changed because the light has come into the darkness.

In Isaiah, which we will hear several times in the next week, Isaiah tells us that “for those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9) As I said on the first Sunday of Advent, we don’t have Christmas because everything is calm and sunny and bright, if the world was like that we wouldn’t need Christmas. We have Christmas because our circumstances are often far from ideal. Our lives are noisy and chaotic and messy, or perhaps it’s too quiet. Life doesn’t go as planned, and we walk in that darkness and need the light to overcome the darkness, that light we find in Christ, and because of that we come not to be silent, but to shout alleluia!

In a poem entitled, Not a Silent Night, Debbie Wallis, says

It was not a silent night. Men were questioning what this strange starlight meant.
Others, roused in the midst of their watch, no longer questioned.
For their night was split with the shock of a choir of angels
Shouting “Glory to God, the Christ child comes!”

It was not a silent night. It was a noisy, confusing night. The city was congested,
Tempers were short, the inns crowded – all of them!
And Mary and Joseph – what did their hearts cry when the saw the lowly birth bed?

It was not a silent night. His coming tore a woman’s body. Hid coming was hard –
dreadfully hard for everyone involved.
His coming was not a mythical anesthetized 20th century dream.
It was hard and cold. It was heavy

But it was not silent. He forever split our darkness with the proclamation of angels
That the Light of the world was shining.
That for all ages to come we could know that heaven is not silent.
For God has spoken. He has come.

That first Christmas was many things, but silent was not one them, because the angels were singing, and the cattle were lowing, and the heavens rejoiced that Christ was born, for you and for me. So, as we think about that night let us remember not the silence, but of the light, the light come into the world, the light that came to overcome the darkness, the dawn that breaks the night, and let us not remain silent ourselves but instead join with the heavenly hosts in singing “Alleluia! Glory in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and goodwill to all.” May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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