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