This December marks the 200th anniversary of the debut of “Silent Night.”
Most people have heard the story about the church organ that was not operational for a Christmas Eve service. Mice, rust, or something other than a power failure (not a possibility in those pre-electricity days) took the blame.
Father Josef Mohr, a local parish priest, had written a poem on December 23 and had the inspiration to ask Franz Gruber if he could put a melody to it. Their village was snowy, and those of us who have lived in northern climates know something of the somber yet lovely silence which falls over the countryside and penetrates the soul of the beholder. Gruber probably played guitar in classical style, so his playing would have had the simple dignity which fit the landscape and has marked the hymn ever since.
We can imagine the still sky, the gleam of snow and ice, the bright stars and the glow of firelight in the homes of Oberndorf, Austria. What we may wonder is whether it was really all that silent in Bethlehem. The city was, after all, teeming with visitors. It may not have been anything comparable to Myrtle Beach during bikers’ weeks, but there were likely many besides Mary and Joseph looking for a place to sleep. One can imagine the inns getting raucous as wine skins were emptied and people kept knocking on doors. The streets, too, were likely jammed. Meanwhile, something very quiet was going on in a stable.
The Advent and Christmas seasons are times when we are called to reclaim a bit of that solemn silence. There is something about miracles — God’s intervention in our everyday world — which leaves us speechless. The birth of the Messiah is, of course, the miracle of miracles. It happened unbeknownst to most of the townspeople and those gathering for the census. The shepherds heard and came, but it took an angelic visitation to alert them. They, too, even in the quiet hills, had to screen out some noise — sheep sounds and sleep sounds and whatever shuffling and coughing they themselves were up to.
At Mass on the First Sunday of Advent, Father Marcin Zahuta, pastor at St. Thomas More in Columbia, preached about the difficulty our culture has with silence. We live in a world of hyper-stimulation. We call, we text, we check email, we stream, we watch, we crank up car radios and neighborhoods shake when some drive by. We get transfixed by incessant noise and wonder why we can’t settle down. Father Marcin suggested simply disconnecting and being silent for a fixed amount of time each day as a challenging discipline for our wintry season and beyond.
His point, of course, is to train our inner selves be attentive so that God can get a word in edgewise. Mary and Joseph carried an inner quiet with them. It opened them to divinity. Perhaps we can capture a bit of that deep silence and calm. It would be a true Christmas gift to ourselves and to our world.
Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, is the Secretary for Education and Faith Formation at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.