Silent Night, Holy Night

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling

The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.

Habakkuk 2:20

Silent Night is surely one of the most beloved Christmas carols in the world today. If you know the familiar story of this song's origin, you know it didn't start out this way. In 1816, a young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr composed a six-stanza Christmas poem that began “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (German for “Silent Night, Holy Night”). Two years later, on December 24, 1818, Mohr decided to have his poem sung in the Christmas Eve service of his church. So he went to his musically-inclined friend, Franz Gruber, and asked him to write a musical arrangement so they could sing it that night. Gruber obliged, and on Christmas Eve 1818 he and Mohr sang “Stille Nacht” in the midnight mass. Yes, they were accompanied by a guitar, but probably not because the organ was broken. Rather, it was common for music in the Austrian Christmas Eve mass to be of a folk variety.

Although “Stille Nacht” was not completely forgotten after 1818, it didn’t make the Austrian top-40 either, at least not right away. But, a few years later, some traveling folk singers added the song to their repertoire as a “Tyrolean Folk Song.” In this form, it became well known, though a few notes were changed from Gruber’s original. By the middle of the 19th century, “Stille Nacht” was a favorite carol, having been sung even before the royal families of Europe. It was first performed in America in 1839 in New York City.

The title of this popular carol is not based on any expressed detail of the biblical Christmas story. We're never told that the night Jesus was born was silent. In fact, we have ample evidence to suggest otherwise. Childbirth is rarely a quiet affair. Newborn infants tend to cry when they're not sleeping. I don't know whether sheep make noise at night, but I'm quite sure that a "great company of the heavenly host" saying "Glory to God in the highest" would fill the countryside with noise.

So then, why Silent Night? We find a clue to the author's intention in the second phrase, "Heilige Nacht," or "Holy Night." In the presence of holiness, sometimes we are gripped by stunned silence. For example, in Habakkuk 2:20 we read, "The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him." So, in the imagination of Joseph Mohr, the night of Jesus' birth was silent because it was holy. It was set apart from other nights because, for the first time in history, the holy God was physically present on earth in human form.

So often, our Christmas celebrations are anything but silent. Whether we're hearing choirs belting "Joy to the World" or the cacophony of crowds in the mall or the joyful cries of children opening their presents, Christmas is hardly silent. Yet, if we take time to retreat from the commotion, if we allow ourselves to consider the mystery of the Incarnation, if we imagine what it would have been like to join the shepherds at the manger, then perhaps we will hear in a new way the prophet's call to silence: "The LORD is in his holy feeding trough; let all the earth be silent before him, with awestruck wonder and humble worship."

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When, if at all, have you experienced silence in your celebrations of Christmas? Why is silence an appropriate response to God's holiness?


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,
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,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav'nly hosts sing Alleluia;
Christ the Savior is born.
Christ the Savior is born.

Lord Jesus, as we consider the miracle of your birth, we are silent before you in humble, awestruck worship. Amen.