More than a song
Editor’s note: As has become tradition, this newspaper publishes a guest editorial for our Christmas edition. This year we are grateful for the contribution of the Reverend Matthew Warren.
Two hundred years ago, as the story goes, there was a traveling band of actors, who were roving throughout towns in the Austrian Alps. As Christmas was near, they were going from church to church performing a Christmas Pageant. But when they came to the small village of Oberndorf, outside of Salzburg, they could not perform. The organ in St. Nicholas’ Church was out of commission. As it turns out, church mice had chewed through the bellows.
And so, because they could not be accompanied by music in the church, the traveling band of actors performed in the parlor of a private home. Watching the play put a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, into an introspective mood. Instead of walking straight back to his house that night, December 23rd, 1818, he instead walked a different path, to a hill overlooking the village.
It was while looking down on the snowy majesty of a winter night that Mohr recalled a poem he had written a few years earlier about the angels which had visited those country shepherds outside of Bethlehem, bringing with them their glad tidings of great joy. Mohr thought those words would make a good carol, and so he went to the church organist, Franz Gruber to ask if he could set his words to music.
Gruber, it turned out, was up to the task. And so, with just the quiet strumming of Gruber’s guitar, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber introduced the world to Silent Night two hundred years ago.
Not with jubilant choirs or thundering organs, just a quiet lullaby, really. A candle of hope set against the darkness which surrounds it.
Silent Night is more than just a Christmas Carol. Its lyrics are more than a melodic re-telling of the nativity. Whether or not we go to church, many of us listen to Silent Night as a kind of prayer. There is nothing calm about the holidays, and with so many of our lives touched by the tragedy of the Camp Fire, there is a gloom that hangs over this Christmas season.
But it is in the face of this uncertainty that we hope for a moment of quiet peace. It is, in a very real sense, an act of defiance. Like a candle burning amid the darkness, we long for a moment of peace in a season marked by frenetic shopping, baking, and hosting. We search for a point of light to draw us out of the bleakness we may be facing in our lives.
We pray for a silent night.
This isn’t a prayer for the perfect Christmas or for that coveted present which, for a few moments, at least, will complete our lives. No … the prayer for a silent night is simply one that draws us towards hope. Hope that the blessings of our lives will continue; hope that the trials and tragedies which we endure will soon pass; hope that tomorrow will be better than today.
That is the legacy of Silent Night, and it captures perfectly the spirit of this holiday season.
In this season, I wish you not just the Merriest of Christmases and the Happiest of New Years. I wish you all the hope and peace of a Silent Night.
Fr. Matthew Warren is the Vicar of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Quincy; he also serves Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Lake Almanor.