Christmas Eve, 2009
Tonight is the most sacred night of the year for Christians. Easter is glorious. Good Friday is powerful in it’s message of life and death and new life. Pentecost is a miraculous and amazing time. But there’s something about Christmas Eve that elicits the deepest, most sacred thoughts and feelings for the Church.
Perhaps it’s the music. Some of the most beloved hymns in the Christian tradition are Christmas hymns. They are some of mine. Perhaps it’s the traditions surrounding those hymns. And there are many! But there is one that’s nearly universal. Every Church I’ve been in and every Church I’ve served has had a common Christmas Eve tradition. They have all shared the tradition we are going to share in just a few minutes. That’s the tradition of singing “Silent Night” with all holding candles. There’s something about that which makes Christmas Eve what it is.
Perhaps that’s because it adds to the mental image of the story we celebrate here. Silent Night is a simple song. It was written originally for the guitar. And we have a mouse to thank for it. I’m sure you remember the story about the mouse that chewed the bellows of the organ in the church in Oberndoerf Austria almost 200 years ago. Perhaps you remember the worry of the pastor, Joseph Mohr, who then faced the prospect of Christmas Eve with no organ music. So he wrote these simple words and asked the organist, Franz Gruber, to set them to music with some kind of instrument. And ever since that year of 1818, “Stille Nacht” has been one of the most beloved of all Christmas Hymns.
Perhaps that’s because of the story of which it speaks. There are much more grand and majestic hymns of Christmas. “Joy to the World.” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Those give us great visions of the Heavenly host of Angels singing praises to all that this night represents for the world. We can sing them with full organ and all the stops in the light of day on a Christmas Sunday.
But Silent Night… speaks to us of the simple, beautiful story of the moment of Jesus’ lowly birth to a peasant girl and carpenter. In it’s simple form, it gives us simple visions of that humble, yet amazing story.
I remember in college when I was studying music, there would often be comments about “certain songs” that had only the most rudimentary harmonies and the simplest melodies, and very basic voice parts. They were not sophisticated enough to be “good music.” And I never believed that. Some of my favorite composers and singers were ones that could take the simplest harmonies and melodies and make incredible music out with them! And maybe it’s because of this song, Silent Night. It has all those things that are considered “unsophisticated” in musical circles – rudimentary harmonies, basic voice parts, and the simplest of melodies. Yet none can deny the beauty of this song and the power in that beauty!
I think the greatest power in this song is how it integrates so well with the simplicity and power of the story it tells! Some would say the same thing of this story. It is “unsophisticated.” It is too humble to have any significance. It has no grand and glorious elements. But I think you’ll agree they’re wrong.
Some in that “sophisticated world” – some even in the church, would accuse us of “worshipping Silent Night.” I think they don’t get it. The power here is not in the song. It is in what this song speaks to our hearts about what moves us in ways that are hard to explain. There are hymns we sometimes sing that we pay little attention to the worlds we’re singing. That happens. It doesn’t happen with this song. Because of it’s simplicity and power, we get the picture, don’t we?!
Perhaps that’s why God chose to do it this way. There’s nothing powerful and majestic about this story! Yes, there have been grand processionals over the years celebrating it. There have been Hallelujah choruses sung, and organs played with all the stops. But sometimes this simple story seems almost out of proportion to the glorious things humans have attached to it. This story itself is beneath all that, and as such it is beyond all of that. Like our service on Christmas Eve, the whole of this celebration all comes down to “Silent Night.” That’s the culmination of all the readings and all the stories we’ve retold this evening. And I pray for us that this simple story would continue to go beyond all the glory and celebration of this evening and the day tomorrow. May it continue to speak to our hearts in it’s simplicity and power.
In that regard, I would even wish for us that this song would run through our heads – all day, no matter what we’re doing. You know how that happens, when we can’t get a song out of our heads? May it be this one tomorrow, no matter what we’re doing, no matter what our Christmas Day traditions, no matter what wonderful fellowship we’re sharing with those closest to us. In all of that, may these simple strains echo over and over again in our heads throughout the day. And by these simple words and simple music, may the thoughts of this Holy Night be etched in our minds, and in our hearts, no matter what we’re doing.
So let us share once again this tradition. We will dim the lights until there is little left but the Christ Candle in the advent wreath. And I will read to you John’s wonderful words about how the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Know that God loves each of us so much that he did all of this.
Holy God, we worship you this Holy night. We thank you for what you have done so long ago, that means so much to us even today. Help us to keep in our hearts all Christmas day this simple story about which we read and about which we sing. For we pray in the name of the holy child, Jesus. Amen.