On a cold Christmas Eve in the year 1818, a young priest named Joseph Mohr quickly walked from his home in the small town in Oberndorf, Austria to the neighboring village of Amsdorf. He was carrying a piece of paper – a poem he had written two years earlier.
He made his way to the schoolhouse, walked up the stairs and knocked on the door of the second floor apartment. He was greeted by his friend, Franz Gruber, the schoolmaster in Amsdorf and also the church organist.
Father Mohr asked his friend to help him put his poem to music. He wanted a new Christmas hymn for the mass that evening. There was a catch, though. He wanted it played on guitar, not the organ.
Over the years, many have speculated why. Some say the organ was broken. Others say it was because of Father Mohr’s love for the guitar. Whatever the reason, Gruber quickly wrote a melody and guitar chords for the new Christmas carol.
That night at the Midnight Mass, Father Mohr and Franz Gruber, quietly backed by the choir and accompanied by a single guitar, sang the new hymn for the first time. It was called Stille Nacht. You may know it as Silent Night.
Silent Night has since been translated into over 140 languages and sung in every corner of the world. In 2011, the United Nations declared it an intangible cultural heritage. It is arguably the most famous Christmas carol of all time.
Its popularity contrasts sharply with its humble beginnings. Silent Night scholar, Bill Eagan, once wrote: “Perhaps this is part of the miracle of Silent Night. The words flowed from the imagination of a modest curate. The music was composed by a musician who was not known outside his village. There was no celebrity to sing at its world premiere. Yet its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, conquering the hearts of people everywhere.”
The quiet words, the soft melody and the lonely guitar reflect the reality of the first Christmas. It was truly a silent night. In the streets of the tiny village of Bethlehem, you might have been able to hear the Mary’s muffled moans as she gave birth to Jesus. You might have heard the delicate cries of the newborn baby coming out of the stable. Few, however, would have noticed.
Jesus’ birth was not reported on CNN. There were no TV cameras or paparazzi at the stable. Social media was not alerted. Jesus’ birth didn’t go viral until years later. It was a night like any other.
On that night the almighty God was born as a helpless baby and nobody noticed except a handful of shepherds who were sleeping in the fields outside of Bethlehem.
Yet from those humble beginnings came our salvation. That baby was born to die. He came to take your place and suffer your punishment for all the hurtful things you think, say and do. He came to win for you a home in heaven. Through that baby, God won and offers eternal life to all people from every nation, tribe and language.
So, as you sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, remember its quiet beginnings. Listen to its beautiful words. Appreciate your God’s love that he was humbly born to die for you.