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Spiritual Spinach

Song translates Christ's love

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Ever wonder how the beloved Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” came about?

I only knew a little history until I wrote a story about First Lutheran Church in Fremont.

The Rev. Ernesto Medina and his staff are inviting the public to a 10 p.m. outdoor Christmas Eve service around a campfire.

Those who attend will sing “Silent Night” with only guitar accompaniment.

That’s the way it was performed for the first time more than 200 years ago.

The historical account begins with a young, Catholic priest, Joseph Mohr, who’d come to the Austrian village of Obendorf after the Napoleonic Wars. The wars had claimed between 3.2 million and 6.5 million military and civilian lives.

More trouble occurred in 1816 — known as the year without a summer — due to climate abnormalities, believed to have been caused by ash from a volcanic eruption in Indonesia.

The climate problems caused famine and deprivation.

That fall, Joseph arrived in Obendorf, where he wrote a poem, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht — Silent Night, Holy Night,” about the birth of Jesus.

Two years later, he asked Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolteacher and the church organist, to write a melody for the poem.

Stories differ on why the church organ wasn’t working. Some attribute it to possible damage from flooding, while others say mice or rust were the culprits.

Whatever the case, Franz produced a melody with a guitar arrangement within hours.

The men sang “Stille Nacht” for the first time at Christmas Mass in St. Nicholas Church while Mohr played the guitar. The carol quickly spread across Europe.

People around the world have sung the carol now for centuries.

German and Allied soldiers sang it during the famous Christmas Eve Truce of 1914 in World War I.

I love the story of that truce in which unarmed German and British soldiers came out of their zig-zag trenches. They shook hands and traded souvenirs. Some played a game of soccer.

Recently, I watched the Sainsbury TV ad which recreates the scene. You can hear the German and British soldiers singing “Silent Night” in their own languages in the cold, dark trenches.

The melody is played again softly as they make the truce and play soccer.

Two centuries after the song was written, I imagine what comfort it must have brought to that first Austrian congregation — people devastated by war and famine.

I think about soldiers — decades later and miles away from home — who’ve sung this song, remembering past Christmases even as they hope and pray for better days.

We have such hope in Jesus, who came from heaven to a world beset with hatred, violence, hardship and despair.

I think about a young couple, traveling miles from home and arriving in a place — Bethlehem — where there’s no room for them.

So they find rest in a stable.

Somewhere in the fields nearby, shepherds are watching their flocks at night, when an angel appears. The Lord’s glory shines around them and they’re terrified.

The angel tells them not to be afraid, because he has good news which will bring great joy to all people.

What’s the reason for the joy?

A Savior, the Messiah, has been born. The angel says the shepherds will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

Suddenly, the angel is joined by a huge group of angels, who are praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heavens and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Once the angels leave and go back into heaven, the shepherds run, looking for the baby.

And they find him.

After that, they tell everyone they meet what the angels said and everyone who hears it is amazed.

The shepherds glorify and praise God.

Everything turned out just like they’d been told it would.

Meanwhile, Mary — the mother of Jesus — ponders all these things in her heart.

So was it a silent night?

Maybe after Jesus was born, but it sounds like the fields where the shepherds were became filled with joyful noise. And those shepherds obviously broke into great praise after all they’d seen and heard.

I believe the place where it was the quietest was in Mary’s heart as she reveled in the love of her new little baby and wondered what his future would hold.

It must have been incredible.

On the eighth day after Christ’s birth, Mary and her husband, Joseph, take baby Jesus to the temple. There, a devout man named Simeon, had been told by the Holy Spirit that he wouldn’t die before he saw the Lord’s Messiah.

Simeon takes little Jesus in his arms and praises God.

He blesses the couple and tells Mary that her child will cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.

Thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.

“And a sword will pierce your own soul, too,” he says.

Did those words shoot right through Mary?

Did they make her fearful? Or were they strange words wrapped in the protective coat of mystery?

Mary couldn’t have known then how her precious baby would grow up and suffer the horrible death of crucifixion.

Or how his death would save people from their sins, provide a path to eternity with him in heaven and hope to untold numbers of believers throughout the generations.

She couldn’t have pictured a priest writing a song about the night her baby was born.

Or how that song would bring comfort to people traumatized by war and famine.

Or men on a battlefield.

Or to modern-day believers who’ve sung the song in hospitals, churches, prisons and anyplace else where a reminder of the Savior is needed and cherished.

I’ve read that, “Silent Night,” has been translated into 140 languages.

But more than that, I think this song has been used to translate the love of Christ – a Savior who came to us as a little baby to do more than anyone else ever could.

Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She writes a weekly faith-based column.


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