Union Chapel Baptist Church



Silent Night, Holy Night

By Stephen Mitchell


by Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber

Joseph Mohr was born in Salzburg on 11 December 1792, to an unmarried embroiderer, Anna Schoiberin, and Franz Mohr, a mercenary soldier and deserter, who abandoned Joseph’s mother before the birth. At his baptism shortly after birth, as the parents were unmarried, Joseph received the name of his father, according to custom.

Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, vicar and leader of music at Salzburg Cathedral, enabled Mohr to have an education and encouraged him in music. As a boy, Mohr would serve simultaneously as a singer and violinist in the choirs of the University Church and at the Benedictine monastery church of St. Peter. From 1808 to 1810, Mohr studied at the Benedictine monastery of Kremsmünster in the province of Upper Austria. He then returned to Salzburg to attend the Lyceum school, and in 1811, he entered the seminary. Since he was of illegitimate birth, a special dispensation was required in those days for him to attend seminary. On 21 August 1815, Mohr graduated and was ordained as a priest in the Austrian Roman Catholic Church.

In the fall of 1815, Mohr was asked to provide temporary help in the village of Ramsau near Berchtesgaden. Mohr then served as assistant priest in Mariapfarr (1815-1817). It was during this time, in 1816, that he penned the words to “Silent Night” in Mariapfarr. Poor health forced him to return to Salzburg in the summer of 1817. After a short recuperation he began serving as an assistant priest at St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, where he made the acquaintance of Franz Gruber, schoolteacher in neighbouring Arnsdorf. The town and church was often subject to flooding from the Salzach river. Flooding before Christmas had damaged the organ in the church in Oberndorf making it unusable for the Christmas Eve midnight Mass.

So on a cold Christmas Eve in 1818, Mohr walked the two miles from his home in Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit his friend Franz Gruber in the neighbouring town of Arnsdorf. Mohr brought with him the poem he had written some two years earlier. The Christmas Eve midnight Mass was only a few hours away, and Mohr hoped his friend, a school teacher who also served as the church’s choir master and organist, could set his poem to music. Gruber composed the melody for Mohr’s “Stille Nacht” in just a few hours.

The song was sung at Midnight Mass in a simple arrangement for guitar and choir. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the creation of this Christmas Carol. Various legends have sprung up over the years concerning the genesis of “Silent Night”, but the simplest and likeliest explanation seems to have been that Mohr simply wanted an original song that he could play on his favourite instrument, the guitar. Within a few years, arrangements of the carol appeared in churches in the Salzburg Archdiocese and folk singers from the Ziller Valley were taking the composition on tours around Europe.

Mohr, a generous man who donated most of his salary to charity, was moved from place to place, and remained in Oberndorf only until 1819. After Oberndorf he was sent to Kuchl, followed by stays in Golling an der Salzach, Bad Vigaun, Adnet and Anthering. In 1827 he was made pastor of Hintersee, and in 1837 of the Alpine village of Wagrain. Here he created a fund to allow children from poor families to attend school and set up a system for the care of the elderly. Mohr died of pulmonary disease on 4 December 1848, at the age of 55. Mohr obviously never forgot his humble and difficult origins, doing all he could throughout his life to help those who were living in poverty.

In Austria, Stille Nacht is considered a national treasure. Traditionally, the song may not be played publicly before Christmas Eve.

Over the years, because the original manuscript had been lost, Mohr’s name was forgotten and although Gruber was known to be the composer, many people assumed the melody was originally composed by a famous composer, and it was variously attributed to Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. However, a manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr’s handwriting and dated by researchers as c. 1820. It states that Mohr wrote the words in 1816 when he was assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria, and shows that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818. This is the earliest manuscript that exists and the only one in Mohr’s handwriting.

In 1859, the Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, then serving at Trinity Church, New York City, wrote and published the English translation that is most frequently sung today, translated from three of Mohr’s original six verses.[8] The version of the melody that is generally used today is a slow, meditative lullaby or pastorale, differing slightly (particularly in the final strain) from Gruber’s original. Today, the lyrics and melody are in the public domain, although newer translations usually are not.

In 1997 the Silent Night Museum (Saltzburg, Austria), commissioned a new English translation by Bettina Klein of Mohr’s German lyrics. This is the translation on the bulletin insert. Whenever possible, (and mostly), Klein leaves the Young translation unchanged, but occasionally Klein (and Mohr) varies markedly. For example, “Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar, Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar” is translated by Young: “Round yon Virgin mother and child, Holy infant so tender and mild” where as Klein rewords it: “Round yon godly tender pair, Holy infant with curly hair,” a translation closer to the original.

The carol has been translated into about 140 languages.

[Much of the above copied from two Wikipedia articles.]

Mohr’s poem focuses exclusively on that night that God’s Son, Jesus, entered into human sight through the womb of the virgin Mary. We will look briefly at all six verses of Mohr’s message in poetry.

1. Silent night! Holy night!
All’s asleep, one sole light,
Just the faithful and holy pair,
Lovely boy-child with curly hair
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

2. Silent night! Holy night!
God’s Son laughs, o how bright.
Love from your holy lips shines clear,
As the dawn of salvation draws near,
Jesus, Lord, with your birth!
Jesus, Lord, with your birth!

3. Silent night! Holy night!
Brought the world peace tonight,
From the heavens’ golden height
Shows the grace of His holy might
Jesus, as man on this earth!
Jesus, as man on this earth!

4. Silent night! Holy night!
Where today all the might
Of His fatherly love us graced
And then Jesus, as brother embraced.
All the peoples on earth!
All the peoples on earth!

5. Silent night! Holy night!
Long we hoped that He might,
As our Lord, free us of wrath,
Since times of our fathers He hath
Promised to spare all mankind!
Promised to spare all mankind!

6. Silent night! Holy night!
Shepherds first see the sight.
Told by angelic Alleluja,
Sounding everywhere, both near & far
Christ the Savior is here!
Christ the Savior is here!

All six verses begin “Silent Night, Holy Night.” To be honest, being a celibate Roman Catholic priest, I’m not sure he was qualified to write about how silent the birth of Jesus was. Because of God’s judgment on Eve’s fruit-bearing, women bring forth the fruit of their bodies with a lot of pain. “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children.'” Mary would have been no different. Just because she was giving birth to the Messiah does not mean she would have been exempt from that curse. Every cry of a woman in labor is God’s reminder that He hates sin and sin must be judged. So, through the birth, I seriously doubt the night was that silent.

But there was definitely holiness present that night. Jesus was not conceived with a sin nature. He was, from the moment of conception, exactly what He had been from eternity and would continue to be through eternity, holy, undefiled, innocent. Hebrews 7:23-28 speaks of Jesus’ ministry as High Priest before God. Listen to what it says about Jesus’ sinlessness:

The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.

Mohr went on, in verse 1:

All’s asleep, one sole light,
Just the faithful and holy pair,
Lovely boy-child with curly hair

I am sure, after the struggle of a birth, sleep would be welcome and, perhaps, sleep did come. Just the faithful and holy pair? Not sure about the “just” part. Births in that culture were a community affair of the women. It would not just be family members, either. The community’s women would gather to help in the birth and to celebrate the new life. Husbands? They were not welcome to attend. Would they all leave afterward? On that I cannot say. But we do know that the Roman Catholic doctrine of the holiness of Mary is false. The only intrinsic holiness was found in the baby, not in Mary or Joseph. In Luke 1:46-47 we have the beginning of Mary’s reaction to her cousin Elizabeth’s declaration about the baby Mary was carrying. Listen as Mary begins her song:

And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”

Mary, as every other person on the planet except Jesus, was a sinner and needed a Savior.

But Mohr’s statement about Jesus is very interesting. “Lovely boy-child with curly hair.” Mohr was recognizing the Jewishness of Jesus.

First, it might be appropriate to mention here that the typical imagery of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem alone is most likely false. Unless Joseph was the only remaining member of his family, there would have been many that traveled with them. Notice what Luke wrote in Luke 2:1-5:

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.

Secondly, though Mary went up as a family member of Joseph’s family, Mary was a descendant of David in her own right. If we understand the genealogy of Luke 3:23-38 as that of Mary, as it seems, then Mary was a descendant of David through David’s son Nathan, while Joseph, whose genealogy is in Matthew 1, was a descendant of David through David’s son Solomon. So Jesus was the legal son of Joseph and the actual son of Mary apart from any human father.

Legally and biologically, Jesus was a Jew. Mohr’s pointing this out by describing Jesus with a typical feature of Jews, the curly hair, is a bit surprising. In that culture, antisemitism was endemic. Martin Luther, near the close of his life, wrote a polemic against the Jews that was as vicious as it could be without actually calling them to be slaughtered.

But Jesus had to be a descendant of David for God to keep His word. As Gabriel said to Mary in Luke 1:31-33:

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.

Jesus was Jewish and God is not done with the Jews. He has a plan for them and “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” Jesus will one day reign on the throne of His ancestor, King David. On that throne, Jesus will reign, not only as King of the Jews, but as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He will reign as King and Lord over all of Creation.

In verse 2, Mohr emphasized God’s love and salvation. It does not appear to be clear whose holy lips are being emphasized, God the Father’s or God the Son’s. But Mohr’s emphasis on the “dawn of salvation” drawing near is very clear. Finally, thousands of years after the promise given to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, the promised seed of the woman who would crush the head of our ancient enemy Satan had arrived. Within just a few short years, salvation would be accomplished for all mankind, if they would only place their faith in God’s holy Son Jesus. Jesus did come to reign and He was truly Lord at the moment of His birth. The Magi’s question was very perceptive: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” He did not have kingship thrust upon Him. He was born king by virtue of Who He is. Mohr had it right. “Jesus, Lord, with your birth.”

In verse 3, Mohr wrote that the coming of Jesus into the world that night brought peace. The angels spoke of God’s peace to the shepherds as they were out in the fields watching over the sheep in Luke 2:10-14:

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

As Longfellow had written in his poem, “There is no peace on earth.” That was equally true 2000 years ago. In fact, peace cannot exist where God does not have full reign. All the attempts, both nationally and individually, of man to bring his own peace, to provide his own peace, have always been dismal failures. “’There is no peace for the wicked,’ says the LORD” [Isaiah 48:22]. True peace has only come with the presence of Jesus. Which is why Jesus said to the Disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” [John 14:27]. True peace only arrived with the baby in the manger. And because this world is riddled with man’s evil, that peace could only have come from Heaven itself.

And Mohr wrote that Grace, God’s goodness undeservedly lavished upon us, came upon us in the person of Mary’s holy child. Look at the Scriptures to see how often God’s grace is coupled with the presence of Jesus. Listen to just two examples, John 1:14 and Romans 5:15:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.

Truly, as Mohr reminds us, grace has come upon us from Heaven in the person of Jesus, man on this earth.

Then in Mohr’s 4th verse, he wrote that the love of the Father and the love of the Son graced mankind with the coming of Jesus. Paul wrote, in Romans 8:39, that the love of God is in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that love can only come to our hearts through the saving work of the Son of God. The Apostle Paul closed out his letter to the Ephesians with this prayer: “Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” [Ephesians 6:23].

Mohr also wrote that the Father graced and the Son embraced all the peoples on earth. God’s grace was poured out for all mankind. It continues to be freely available through faith in Jesus. And Jesus did embrace all mankind by taking on humanity. We call this the Incarnation. Jesus laid aside some of the independent exercise of His divine prerogatives, took on humanity, and submitted Himself to the Father as a man. Paul wrote of this in Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Then, the author of Hebrews expressed the same truth this way, in 2:9:

But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.

And then, in verses 14-15:

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

Jesus took on humanity to be like everyone, but without sin. Then He went to the cross and died for everyone.

It was in this way that Jesus embraced all mankind by becoming as human as we are, yet without the taint of sin.

In verse 5 Mohr wrote of man’s hunger to be free of the just wrath of God. We know we are sinners, though we try to pretend that we are not. We have devised all kinds of religions trying to provide our own righteousness to escape God’s just wrath at our sin. Yet, the truth is that, without the forgiveness brought by Christ’s sacrifice, we continue under the wrath of God. John said it so well in John 3:36:

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.

We do not agree with Mohr that all mankind are promised to be spared. We must part with him on this stanza of his poem. Only those who believe in the Son have been promised eternal life. After all, isn’t that exactly what John 3:16 states?

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

And the two verses before it?

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

God delays His just wrath at our sin in order to give us more opportunity to accept His free gift of salvation. But most people ignore His gracious offer of forgiveness in Christ Jesus. Which is why Jesus told the Disciples, in Matthew 7:13-14:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

The promise of redemption, of salvation, is available to all mankind, Jesus died for all mankind. But forgiveness only comes to those who put their faith in Jesus as their Savior.

In the 6th and last stanza of his poem, Mohr brought us back to the events of that glorious night of miracles. God gave a humble group of shepherds the privilege of being the first to publicly hear of God’s gift of a Savior. Why them? It is very likely that the sheep they were watching over were destined for the Temple as sacrifices. If so, God was graciously letting them know that the true sacrifice, the Lamb of God, had been born into the world. Soon, they would no longer need to provide a lamb that was unblemished because the Holy, Undefiled, Unblemished, Son of God would offer Himself up to God as man’s substitute. He would die for our sins.

As a fitting close to Mohr’s message in poetry, he called for this message to be sounded out both near and far, Christ the Savior is here!

This is truly a message for us. God Himself has called us to be His ambassadors to this world to sound out that Christ the Savior has come and offers, through His blood, forgiveness for our sins, peace with God, love for God and for each other, and the privilege of living in the Grace of God for eternity.

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is here!

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