The Story of Silent Night
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”
Every Christmas some small child in a church, a school play, or just surrounded by friends and families at home will pick up a musical instrument, such as a violin, and proudly play the most beloved Christmas carol of all times: Silent Night.
“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!”
The child that plays this song may have an instrument that is not in tune. The song may not be played in a professional manner, but the love that pours out of that little instrument touches the heart, stirs the soul, and transports the heart back two thousand years plus to a humble stable, and the night Christ was born.
Now translated into more than 124 languages, Silent Night is a simple carol. It is a carol that has brought families back together, given hope to the hopeless, and even halted, for a moment, the roar of the battle field.
In some small ways Silent Night has changed the course of history. But each Christmas it is still played by a child surrounded by a tree and presents.
The story of Silent Night began in Austria. Perhaps it was the Austria hills, in many ways like the hill of Bethlehem that inspired the creation of the carol. Or perhaps it was the crystal clear moonlight Austrian nights similar to that crystal clear night when the angels split the sky singing their chorus of praise about the birth of the Savior of the world.
We will never know the exact circumstances, emotions, or moment when Silent Night was born. But we can place the time, the story, and the tradition it inspires. And perhaps that inspiration can lead to an understanding about Christmas, and what it means to the world.
The story begins in the Austrian city of Salzburg, a splendid old city, once the city of prince archbishops who were among the most powerful church men north of the Alps. The streets of Salzburg hold many shrines, such as the home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A year after Mozart’s death in 1791 another child was born nearby. His name, Joseph Mohr. The date was December 11, 1792. Unlike Mozart this child would give to the world just one musical composition, one simple Christmas carol.
The mother of Joseph Mohr was a poor person who, as a young woman barely managed to make a living as a knitter. Amidst the riches and splendor of Salzburg, she lived a drab life. When a handsome army musketeer in the army of the archbishop paid her special attention she grasped at a moment for happiness. The moment proved to be illusionary. When Anna Schoiber was found to be with child Franz Joseph Mohr deserted her and the child. Little Joseph was destined to be raised in extreme poverty in a small room at 31 Steingasse where he and his mother lived with his elderly grandmother.
Wanting to see the baby baptized, but needing a godfather, Anna turned in desperation to the hangman of Austria. Historically, he was the last hangman. The effect of all this was that Joseph grew up a poor fatherless child feeling very much alone in the world and very lost until a church man took an interest in the boy and put him into school.
Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, became a foster-father to the young student, and recognizing his musical talent saw to it that he received a proper education. Because Joseph had a good voice, he was nudged into the choir. Joseph attended classes at the famous grammar school in Kremsmünster, Upper Austria, where he received honors for his work.
Not yet sixteen years old Joseph entered the seminary where he was graduated with a view towards ordination. Because he was born out of wedlock, Joseph had to receive special permission from the pope to be ordained. Permission was granted, and on August 21, 1815 Joseph Mohr was ordained. He was 22 years old.
While Joseph was growing up in Salzburg, in another town in Austria another boy was growing up to discover his own destiny. His father, Zach Gruber was a weaver. He was determined that his son, Franz Xavier, would take up the art of weaving. After all weaving is a splendid profession. The key, he tells his son is to produce nimble fingers for work on the loom.
Zach had no use for music. He thought it was a waste of time and energy. However, Franz did have a natural love for music, and his nimble fingers turned towards the keyboard and guitar. Unknown to his father, Franz was allowed to practice music in a local church in the choir loft. When discovered what his son was up to Zach was furious until he heard his son play. Only then did he realize the gift the boy had.
Franz Gruber grew up and began to earn a living as a music teacher in the village of Arnsdorf. There he married, and with his wife had twelve children. Often he would travel to the nearby village of Oberndorf to visit a new found friend who had been assigned as an assistant pastor to the parish of the church of St. Nicholas. The name of his new friend was Joseph Mohr. Together Franz and Joseph enjoy many good times for both had a love for music.
It was this joy and love for music that got Joseph in trouble, for his superior did not share his enthusiasm, and wrote to the archbishop. He charged his young assistant with lacking a proper sober spirit becoming to a priest. The superior did not like how Joseph would go to public places, smoke his pipe, and sing songs. Nevertheless, the friendship between Joseph Mohr and Franz deepens.
It was 1818. Christmas was approaching. Joseph Mohr had been contemplating the beauty of Mary and her baby. One night standing by a river, as he considered the majesty of what took place eighteen hundred years before Mohr became overwhelmed. In the quietness of the moment he could almost feel the light as it touched Mary’s sleeping face.
With the eyes of his mind he saw the angel awakening Mary announcing the divine child within her womb. He considered the struggle she and her husband Joseph endured as they traveled to Bethlehem. He visualized Mary sitting on the young donkey as Joseph led them across the rocky barren landscape. But even after arriving at their destination they were sent away by the inn keepers only to find rest in a humble stable. There, the Messiah, the Son of God was born in humility and weakness.
Mohr came back to reality, but looking out over the white snow he thought of the stillness, the silence of that holy night. “Be still and know I am God,” sang the Psalmist. Stillness. Holiness. It truly must have been a holy night, for it was a night that changed the world.
Minutes later Joseph Mohr returned to his study which was bitterly cold. But he did not mind, for his heart was warm. His soul was inspired. Hours passed, one after another, but he never checked the time. He was writing a poem, six stanzas in all.
The first stanza begins with the words,
“Silent night, holy night.”
These words capture that wondrous moment in Bethlehem, the dire poverty and pain of a woman in a barn crowded with animals, of the basic earthy simplicity of the event, the humility of the shepherds overwhelmed by the terror and majesty of the moment, and that moment when the human soul was engulfed in holiness.
But then the mind of Joseph Mohr was drawn from his pen as he remembered an impossible situation. For the Christmas service, the high point of the religious year, there would be no music, for the organ would be silent. Mice had eaten through the bellows. Was there anything that could be done?
St. Nicholas was a poor parish and no one would dare to make idle promises to the poor, yet Father Joseph Mohr made a promise. “Our organ is in desperate need of repair,” he said. “It stands in silence. But do not despair. Perhaps a miracle can yet happen. Yes, Yes, I believe it will be so. This Christmas there will be beautiful music for all of us.”
Then he remembered his poem. “What if his words were put to music, not for a voiceless organ, but for human voices? Even with a guitar perhaps?” Joseph Mohr hurried to the house of his friend Franz Gruber.
The home of Franz was filled with the fragrance of evergreen, apples and cinnamon. Franz had taken the Christmas ornaments from the attic and was dusting each piece when he heard the urgent knocking on the front door. It was his friend Joseph Mohr, his eyes shining like Christmas stars. Entering into the house Mohr reads the poem he has written of the first Christmas and pleads with Franz to set his words to music, not for organ, but for violin, or even guitar.
“Can the words be set to music by the next night?” Franz was deeply moved by the sincerity of Mohr’s poem. He shut himself up in a room and quietly wrote the music. The work was done and the world has been blessed because two men, moved by faith, wrote a poem and set that faith to music for the whole world to sing.
The church of St. Nicholas is gone now. Only a few stones remain to remind people of the original building. Today, a memorial chapel has been built on the site. Two stained glass windows stand as a silent testimony to the place where Silent Night was first sung.
The years passed. Franz Gruber lived to be 76. Joseph Mohr died at the age of 46 of tuberculosis of the lungs.
God has been pleased to use the song Joseph Mohr wrote to speak to millions. I trust the story behind the song will make it more meaningful, for it reminds us how God uses obscure individuals for His great glory. God can and will use you and me, in as far as we yield our lives and talents to His cause and kingdom.
There are other spiritual lessons from this story, such as the value of friendship, and the need for co-operation, instead of competition within the body of Christ. The world is blessed, and the church is strengthened when God’s people work in harmony, and share the same heartbeat for heaven. To that end may the world sing the words of Silent Night until Jesus comes the second time for all who believe.