Silent Night- the backup plan.

Today I’d like to share one of my favorite hymn stories of all time: the origins of the beloved Christmas hymn, Silent Night. The existence of this hymn can be entirely credited to a broken organ in a church in the Austrian Alps. No organ– talk about a “silent night”!

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.

It was December 24th, 1818, at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, a small village near Salzburg, and the Christmas Eve service was in dire straits. The organ was broken, and they wouldn’t be able to present any of their carefully planned and rehearsed music for the service. Father Joseph Mohr was faced with re-planning the whole service at the last minute– and what would Christmas Eve be without music?

As he prayed and pondered his options, it came into his mind to write a new song- something simple enough to learn that night, and something that could be sung without the organ. Hastily he began writing the words, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…” and took the text to his organist, Franz Gruber. He asked Gruber to compose a simple tune that would permit them to sing the text that evening.

And so, Silent Night was sung for the first time that evening, as a duet accompanied by guitar.

A short time afterwards, an organ technician by the name of Karl Mauracher came to repair the instrument, and when he heard of the near-disastrous Christmas Eve service, he wanted to see the text and tune for himself. He loved it and began spreading the song around the Alpine region of Austria.

The song came to the attention of popular Alpine folk-singers The Strasser Family (similar to the Von Trapps), and when they began singing the song in their concerts, audiences fell in love with the beautiful melody and the simple yet profound text.

Silent Night was first published for congregational song in 1838 in the German hymnbook Katholisches Gesang-und Gebetbuch. Gruber and Mohr were not actually credited in this hymnal; the text and the tune had spread far and wide so quickly that it had outpaced the names of the hymn’s creators. However, Gruber’s grandson was responsible for making sure subsequent hymnals rectified this and correctly attributed the author and composer.

The hymn came to the United States with German immigrants, and was sung widely in German Lutheran congregations throughout the 19th century. In 1863, the first English translation was done by John F. Young and was published in John C. Hollister’s Sunday School Service and Tune Book. The next significant alteration to the text wasn’t until 1984, when Henrietta Ten Harmsel added stanza 2 and made other textual alterations to “stress the paradoxes and deeper meanings of Christmas.”


 

Who hasn’t been there– those days when everything seems to be going wrong, when all of your plans have gone up in smoke, and you’re desperate just to make something happen?

Can you imagine the panic Father Mohr must have felt upon learning on Christmas Eve that the organ was broken, and he’d have to come up with something else for worship… that evening?

Think about how he must have felt that day… and then think about what a meaningful hymn Silent Night has since become for so many around the world. God took Father Mohr’s Plan B, the panicked last-minute scramble,  the desperate attempt to have music of some kind at the service, and he made it into one of the most beloved Christmas hymns of all time.

If the service had gone on as planned, had the music been performed as rehearsed, it probably would have been beautiful. But had everything gone perfectly, we would not have the gift of singing Silent Night as we light our candles on Christmas Eve today.

This Christmas season, as we scramble– and as things go wrong, as they inevitably do– remember that Silent Night was a Plan B.

And remember that God works amid our desperation, in the scramble, in the Plan Bs and Cs and Ds, and makes something beautiful out of all our messes.

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 our King:
“Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born.”

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