Was the organ broken? Had mice chewed the bellows? Or perhaps flooding had ruined the whole instrument? There are many legends about what prompted the composition of Silent Night, which turns two hundred years old tonight. What we know for sure is that as Christmas Eve approached, Joseph Mohr, a parish priest in a small Austrian village, envisioned a new Christmas carol. He asked his friend, the guitarist Franz Gruber, to set to music a poem he had written. Performed by traveling folk musicians and carried across oceans on the lips of immigrants, the new song soon migrated to every corner of the world.
There’s something about this night—this silent night, this holy night. We encircle the sanctuary in the darkness. One by one, we kindle tiny flickering flames. The energy of love and hope and peace spreads quickly until the glow lights every face, the song warms each heart. It’s a thin place—a moment in which heaven brushes close to earth.
In 1914, all across the western front of World War I, on this silent night, this holy night, the guns grew quiet. No one really knows how this truce started or grew so widespread. In the months leading up to that Christmas, the pope had pleaded for a cease-fire. Hundreds of suffragettes in Britain had also called for peace at Christmas in open letter addressed directly to the women of Germany and Austria. These appeals were officially ignored.
The poet Carol Duffy imagines the truce started with the flickering flames of candlelit Christmas Trees. And then she hears the voices of the German soldiers ringing out over those “acres of pain”: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. “The song,” she writes, “was a sudden bridge from man to man; a gift to the heart from home, or childhood, some place shared.” Amid all that brutality, they sang, the enemies. They sang, of all things, about a mother and her child, a holy infant, tender and mild. They worshipped, for a fleeting moment, not the might of cannons but the defenseless Jesus, Lord at his birth. They basked in the radiance of love’s pure light, the glow of the divine blazing in the eyes of comrade and enemy alike.
Like this unsanctioned cease-fire, the birth of the Prince of Peace unfolds in a quiet, organic way. The arrival of the baby takes less than a verse for Luke to describe. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” That’s it. Nothing about how the delivery went. No hint this kid was anyone special. Not even a name for the baby. Then the scene shifts to shepherds on the hillside. In the mind of those times, shepherds were dirty and low-class. So it’s strange, and significant, that they were the first to receive the cosmic message of peace. The glory of one heavenly angel was surely jaw-dropping. Imagine a “multitude of the heavenly hosts” filling the skies above the shepherds with glorias. It was an army of angels. A peaceful army. A heavenly force unfurling God’s ancient splendors of peace o’er all this weary world.
Peace through an unheralded, unnamed and dependent infant.
Peace wrapped in rags, sleeping in an animals’ feed box.
Peace that creeps across bloody, rat-ridden battlefields.
Peace that warms a boy soldier, shivering sleepless in the frozen mud of the trenches, searching the sky for the starry eyes of his mother.
Peace is more than an absence of violence. It is the fullness of wellbeing, a vibrant quality of being alive. Within the soft glow of Christmas candlelight is a fierce blaze. Its fuel is all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood. Its fuel is all the ways we live in death: the self-destructive lies we tell; the fear, the loneliness, the addictions and compulsions; the generational trauma that just keeps on harming us.
In our time, the world is also consumed by war, a war to end all wars. The Guardian offers the story of Jesús Canan, an indigenous Mayan man from Honduras.
“It didn’t rain this year. Last year it didn’t rain,” he said softly. “My maize field didn’t produce a thing. With my expenses, everything we invested, we didn’t have any earnings. There was no harvest.” Desperate and dreaming of the United States, Canan hit the road in early October and joined the migrant caravan. He left behind a wife and three children–ages 16, 14 and 11. . . . This is forcing us to emigrate. . . . In past years, it rained on time. My plants produced, but there’s no longer any pattern [to the weather].”
It’s becoming more and more clear that on this planet, everything is connected, intricately interwoven. Climate change is a root cause of much pain and it makes all other kinds of pain worse, and more unfair.
Peace-making is global in scope, and at the same time, deeply personal. In our family, we practice peace in a gritty, granular way as we struggle with friendships at school. “She’s bossy.” “She always makes me play what she wants to play.” “He pinched me.” “She told me she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.” “They leave me out.” As a parent, it’s hard to know how to help. Sometimes I react in ways that just create more trouble. A wise person in our family’s life offered a way to reframe difficult relationships. “Our friends,” she said, “are still learning.” “We’re all still learning to be kind, to share, to play fair.” Rather than demonizing those who hurt us, exclude us, or annoy us, peace-making calls for us to make space in ourselves and others for birth, for growth, for the development of a new dynamic.
The good news of this night, this silent night, this holy night, is that moment by moment God is laboring within us to give birth to peace. From the cradle, in the shining eyes of a child both holy and ordinary, God is reaching out to kindle the flame of peace in our lives. A child is born for us, a beloved little one given to us. And God’s peace, God’s endless peace, is truly made flesh among us. Amen