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"Silent Night"

by Fr. Jonathan Atchley

Late December 23 evening, 1818, Father Josef Mohr was summoned out in the falling snow on an emergency baptism for an infant born a month too soon.

His thoughts were distracted, mingling with the swirling, falling winter storm. He was glad that he went, for if the child in fact had little time left to this world, he would at least be ready for heaven.

Returning over the snowy mountains of Bavaria, Germany, under a dark blue canopy of bespeckled stars, fresh pictures of the pale mother, anxious father, and tiny babe in the basket by the wood stove stirred his heart to pray. Images of the nativity scene came to mind, and of the Christmas Child who brought life and goodwill to all.

An eventful moment occurred then which will be recorded until hearts join in the simple strains of Christmas joy. Instead of turning in along the way to his house, Father Josef pressed two miles further to the home of the parish organist, Franz Gruber. Though quite late, he could see Franz through the frosted panes, working by candlelight at the piano.

Once inside, the priest was welcomed with a small glass of brandy. He poured out his thoughts of the evening to his musician friend of the sickly child along with his worries about the river flooding the church and possibly damaging the organ. How was the first liturgy of Christmas eve to be celebrated without music? Gruber tried to put his friend’s anxious fears to rest. "You have a poem in your heart, dear Father, but not a word on paper. But you are right; we both have much to do.”

An hour later, Father Mohr was back in his room, putting down on paper what was in his heart. Before 8 a.m. the morning of Christmas eve, he returned with his four stanzas of Still Nacht. Franz Gruber quickly composed the simple melody on guitar. "It was easy;" he shrugged to Father Josef, "your verses sang themselves." Thus was born the most popular Christmas hymn ever written, "Silent Night."

Those present for midnight mass witnessed its public debut, with the composer/celebrant as soloist singing those gentle words with Franz accompanying him on the guitar. Afterwards, walking home with her husband from mass, Frau Gruber was filled with momentary prescience when she acknowledged to her husband, "That melody will be sung long after we are in our graves."

Her words have proved true for well over two centuries. The gift these men offered from their hearts has proved to be a precious and enduring gift, born in humility and love—much like the Christ child given us by the Lord God.

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.

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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