I remember growing up as a little boy in Staten Island, New York and someone gave us a small, inexpensive electric keyboard. My family may very well be the most unskilled family when it comes to playing musical instruments. I equate our family having an organ with a penguin being in the North Pole, both are completely lost. But, the organ also came with a very simply playbook of simple songs. One of those songs in the book was my favorite Christmas Carol called “Silent Night.” In the original German it is Stille Nachte, heilige Nachte, which means “Silent Night, Holy Night.” It is the most popular Christmas Carol of all time and the version sung by Bing Crosby is the third best-selling single of all-time. It has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects. It also just happens to be the 200th anniversary of its “conception.” It also happens to have been written by a Catholic Priest. I would like to pay special honor to this most special of Christmas Carols because it is written about this most special of Holy Nights and how much God is still present in the stillness and silence, not only of Christmas Eve, but all days especially Present in the silence of our hearts, which we all so desperately need. The need for silent prayer and Adoration has never been greater in the midst of the loud and noisy culture in which we live. I would like to reflect on the words and melody of the song, with the Sacred Word of God in the readings for Christmas Eve Holy Mass and the priest who wrote them, Fr Joseph Mohr.
Josephus Franciscus Mohr was born in the city of Salzburg December 11, 1792, the son of an unmarried embroiderer, Anna Schoiberin, and a soldier Franz Mohr, who deserted the army and Joseph’s mother before birth. Fr Joseph’s mom would go on to have four children out of wed-lock, which is part of the story as well, God’s mercy. The godfather was listed as Joseph Wohlmuth, the last official executioner in Salzburg, wow what a interesting family. It sounds a lot like the lineage of Jesus Christ Himself. Poverty would be part of early life of Fr Joseph’s life. Johann Nepouk Hiernle, mentored the musically talented young Joseph. He learned to sing and play violin at an early age and from 1808-1810 he studied at the Benedictine Monastery in upper Austria. In 1811 he entered the seminary and since he was of illegitimate birth, he needed special dispensation to enter the seminary, which he received and which is no longer needed and he was ordained a priest on August 21, 1815. His first parish was in Mariapfurr in the Langau region of the Province of Salzburg. He served in the village of Ramsau near Berchtesgaden, future stronghold of Adolph Hitler. He served as assistant to the pastor and it was here in Mariapfurr in 1816, he wrote the beautiful words to “Silent Night.” Poor health forced him to move back to Salzburg and he began his recuperation in Obendorff, where he would meet his friend Franz Xaver Gruber. God was orchestrating not only the song but also those who would be his humble instruments-Mohr and Gruber.
Early morning on December 24, 1818 Fr Joseph Mohr of the new St. Nicholas Parish in Obendorff handed Franz Gruber a request to write a “fitting melody” for 2 solo voices together with choir to be accompanied by a simple guitar. This beautifully reflects the desire to bring peace to the anxious, simple people of his congregation. Fr Joseph wanted the music to be beautifully wedded to the God inspired words to “Silent Night.” Later that day, Franz Gruber presented his melody and music to Fr Joseph, who liked it. Since the organ was malfunctioning, Fr Joseph asked the parts to be written with an accompanying guitar, which fits Fr Joseph’s impoverished background and the “stillness” of the song and Holy Night. Fr Joseph sang the tenor part and provided the accompanying guitar while Gruber sang the bass. The song was met with “general approval by all” not bad considering most in attendance worshipping were shipping laborers, boat builders and family members.
Silent Night was created and first performed during very difficult, impoverished times. The Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), which had caused great hardship and suffering just, came to an end. The result of the Congress of Vienna, caused new borders to be drawn and much and of the ecclesiastical Principality of Salzburg was divided and partitioned between Bavaria and Austria. The important salt trade along the Salzach River suffered badly and many transport companies, boat builders and laborers were out of work facing an uncertain future. It was in this “climate” that Fr Joseph composed “Silent Night.” It was similar to Pope John Paul II surveying the culture and penning the inspired Theology of the Body. God puts “prophets” small and large in the appropriate place at the appropriate time, which not only demonstrates His omnipotence but His desire for intimacy with us, His children.
Most English translations are not exactly true to the original in part to due to the loose, yet lovely translation penned by Protestant Minister John Freeman Young in New York in 1859. Most modern performances of “Silent Night” include only 2 or 3 verses while the original has 6 and most switch the original sixth verse and make it number two and take the original 2nd verse and make it number three, sounds confusing perhaps it is. Verse one of the original German version mentions the “intimate holy pair” referring to Mary and Joseph and a lovely boy with curly hair. The original second verse recognizes the newborn Jesus’ Divinity calling Him the “Son of God” and “how He laughs,” not doubt Fr Mohr was acknowledging his full humanity. Also, amidst His deep poverty, baby Jesus can laugh and be joy-filled. This was an important message that his suffering, worried parishioners needed to hear. The third verse mentions the salvific meaning for this Child’s Birth and that He came from “Heaven’s golden heights.” Fr. Mohr also acknowledges that this was the fruit of the Father’s merciful abundance: Jesus Coming in human form. The fourth verse mentions also the Power of the Father’s love being poured forth on humanity, like a “brother lovingly embraced” to all the “people of the world.” In the fifth verse Fr Mohr wrote that this was God’s plan from long ago when the Lord “frees from wrath, since the beginning of ancient times” this “salvation promised for the whole world.” In the sixth verse he states, “To shepherds it was first made known, by the angel alleluia, “sounding forth loudly” Jesus the Savior is here” and with you. The original work is very theologically oriented and sound, explaining why God wanted a priest, Fr Mohr, to write it and an excellent musician, Franz Gruber to compose the melody and music. The original German version penned by Fr Mohr is deeply humble yet prophetic. It is very humble yet deeply divine. The English translation and melody, which we all grew up, while it is lovely and beautiful, is rather stripped of its real Incarnational depth and holiness. Soldiers sang the song simultaneously in English and German during the Christmas cease-fire during World War I. It was the only Christmas Carol both sides knew. The original German version of “Silent Night” reflects some aspects of Theology of the Body in as much as it reflects the dignity of the human person, our need for redemption by Our Savior, the intimacy Jesus wants with us, the humility He wants for us with child-like dependence on Him as He demonstrated in the Nativity and His utter dependence on the Father. It also demonstrates our hope in the eschaton and this hope was given to us from “ancient times.”
It was in the midst of such great hardship, unemployment and suffering that the prophetic Fr Mohr penned these beautifully inspired words and which Franz Gruber leant his musical gift to make one of the loveliest marriages of words and music in any Christmas Carol-sort of who Jesus truly is, the perfect blend of pure humanity and divinity. The reading for the Prophet Isaiah bears witness that He will bring great Light and that He will remove their burden, the Jews of old and all those burdened by taskmasters. He is the true Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero and Prince of Peace. The Gospel of St Luke chapter 2 mentions Jesus in “swaddling clothes” which was a common technique then as it is today to keep the infants warm, calm and peaceful. To the baby it feels like the beautiful embrace it had while in the mother’s womb. Nothing can be more holy for us and safe to be spiritually embraced by the loving embrace of Mary’s womb. Pope John Paul II always said the Marian posture of receptivity is deeply important and precedes the Petrine posture of going forth to evangelize. The Prince of Peace was born to keep us warm in His loving embrace and share His Mother Mary with us, as He did on the Cross. Let us go forth and with the Angel Gabriel and the shepherds saying: Glory to God in the highest on and on earth peace to those on who His favor rests. May the Christmas Season be filled with Holy days and silent prayerful experiences for you with the Prince of Peace.
Father Tom DeSimone was ordained a priest on May 13, 2006, the Feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. He most recently served as Parochial Vicar of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in White Plains, NY. He joins the staff of the Theology of the Body Institute on a three-year leave from the Archdiocese of New York, to become the Institute’s first full time spiritual advisor and Director of Clergy Development.