On Christmas Eve 1818 in Salzburg, Austria, Father Joseph was troubled because the organ at the Church of St. Nicolas was broken. As a blessing in disguise, Father Joseph's broken organ would give him a reason to write one of the most beloved Christmas hymns of all time:
"Silent Night, Holy Night.
All is calm; all is bright.
'Round young virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace."
Father Joseph wrote the lyrics to "Silent Night" in a burst of inspiration. He asked his organist, Franz Gruber, to create music for his poem, which he composed on a guitar since the organ was out of service. "Silent Night" was performed as a duet for the first time on that Christmas Eve. The gentle, melodic tune combined with the lyrics makes for a perfect Christmas lullaby, which seems to produce the peace about which it speaks.
"Silent Night" was so powerful and moving it literally stopped gunfire in World War I. The German and British armies, fighting in close quarters with one another, spontaneously agreed to a cease-fire on Christmas Eve. The unofficial, unannounced (and un-approved) armistice came quite accidentally when German soldiers, who were missing home on Christmas Eve, began to sing "Silent Night" in the trenches in the late hours of the night. The British soldiers, recognizing the tune, joined in in English. By Christmas morning, soldiers from both sides cautiously and courageously crept across the killing fields, which divided them to wish their enemies a "Merry Christmas." They even exchanged gifts! The soldiers, who had spent the previous day trying to kill one another, spent Christmas day talking, laughing, and playing sports together. How can we explain this remarkable event? Was it mere sentimentality that softened men's hearts on that night? If it was, it was the most noteworthy sentimentality the world has ever known. I think there is a much deeper reason that peace broke into the world on that hopeful Christmas Eve.
At the heart of the Christian Gospel, beginning with the birth of Jesus is the redefinition of power. We know what power looks like -- or at least we think we do. We have seen it many times. The person with the biggest guns and the most forceful will is the one who has power. But on Christmas Eve, in the middle of a bloody world war, a more profound influence was unveiled through the singing of "Silent Night." It is the power of the Gospel.
It is impossible to sing "Silent Night" without thinking about Jesus and the Gospel. We Christians are not always good at articulating the significance of the Gospel of Jesus. Far too often, we have reduced "the Gospel" to a mathematical formula for acquiring "peace with God," a blissful life after death, or a neatly packed theory of atonement. But the Gospel, the good news about King Jesus' rule and reign, is much warmer and more all-encompassing than a technical, legal exchange. It is the beginning of a radical shift in the way the world functions. It is an upending of what we have called "power." The tyrants of the world are not the ones who have real power. The real power belongs to the meek of the earth — those who recognize the quiet peace inaugurated through the Christ-child. The Gospel is news, not philosophy. News is something that changes the world whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, and whether we know it or not. It's not optional. The reason "Silent Night" sparked a brief armistice is because it reminded soldiers in both trenches of, at least, an unconscious, Christian memory --the news of the Gospel which they had heard but had forgotten. The Germans and British alike are Christian civilizations, and we ought to know by now that that is not the same thing as individuals being Christians. Westerners feel the brush of the stroke of heaven through our exposure to the Gospel in millions of subtle ways. The German and British soldiers both had memories somewhere of a Christmas Eve and a song celebrating the birth of the world's true Lord. Even if they didn't have that memory, the reality of the news is that Jesus is King. Singing that news reveals the fact in profound ways.
At some inarticulate level, both sides of the war had an awareness of a way of being human that sets aside national pride, greed, and vengeance. They knew that vulnerability could be a great strength and the means of radical forgiveness and love. If God had finally and fully revealed Himself in the form of a helpless baby, maybe the rest of the human race might fruitfully reflect His humble image. Yes, the soldiers went back to their trenches and fought to the death once again. But maybe some of them began to realize that the real war was not with the Germans and not with the British. The real battle is with pride, vengeance, unforgiveness, and greed. Maybe they began to consider that the war they were fighting was someone else's war, and they were merely pawns in it. Some little tyrant somewhere was seeking vengeance and a restoration of pride or some other such nonsense. Yes, maybe the war had to go on, the bully can't be allowed to rule the playground, but what about after the war? What about ending the war? How could that take place, and how could they begin to rebuild? There is something about "Silent Night" and about Christmas itself that sobers us into peace and convicts us of megalomaniac pride and checks our self-destructive spirit of vengeance. It's hard to explain the power of this Gospel. It's much better to experience it by singing once again:
All is calm
All is bright
With the Angels, let us sing
Hallelujah to the King
Christ the Savior is born
Christ the Savior is born"
Do you want peace in your life? Is there a war in your soul? Maybe this Christmas, you should remember the struggle isn't with the enemy "over there." The battle is with your own will. Are you willing to lay down the weapons you have been so used to using and instead trust in the power of the Messiah? The Messiah who holds the keys of life and who can release you from all fear of death? Free from the fear of death, we can also be free from unforgiveness, greed, and pride. We can give ourselves in love because the One who first loved us has the power to right all wrongs, and He will in the end. Trust this truth, and you will share in the victory of the Christ-child. Then the peace which passes all understanding will guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus, and you too will know the silent night of peace this Christmas.