The Dawn of Redeeming Grace (Christmas Eve) SS
T’was the night before Christmas and the world was a freaking mess. Climate change was wreaking havoc with the environment, children and women were disproportionately bearing the brunt of wars and violence, border disputes were turning neighbors and friends against one another, and the usual sources of unhappiness—sickness, discordant relationships, financial worries and similar struggles—were running rampant.
Yes, I might be describing our current context. But I might also be describing Christmas Eve two hundred years ago in the area surrounding what is now Salzburg, Austria.
For decades leading up to 1818, soldiers had disempowered, looted, and set fire to wide swaths of that territory during the Napolieanic wars. The Salzach River, which had always served as a lifeline for the community settled around it was now the boundary between two separate countries, and was fiercely guarded on both shores by armed police. People on either side of the river were forced into new governments, and had to navigate new laws and new currencies while feeling like strangers in their own communities.
To make matters worse, the people were still recovering from 1816, which became known as the “Year Without Summer” as a result of the worldwide impact of a volcano eruption in Indonesia. This event disrupted typical weather patterns all over the world, causing European harvests to be decimated by nonstop rain and snow even during the summer months. AND in 1818, a fire in Salzburg destroyed 93 buildings in the city, causing 1,000 people to lose their homes or livelihoods. The fire exacerbated the unemployment situation that had already been on the rise since the invention of the mechanical loom in 1786, which had displaced local weavers.
It was a mess. And into that mess, so different and so similar to Christmas Eve in Seattle in 2018, Jesus Christ came to frightened, hurting people, bringing peace and goodwill to all. And into the messes in which we find ourselves here and now on this Christmas Eve, Jesus comes again offering light in the midst of our darkness. Sometimes Jesus’ visits are not dramatic or obvious, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t powerful. “How silently, how silently, that wondrous gift is given.” Sometimes blessings unfurl slowly, in fits and starts. That gentle, slow pace is how the beautiful Christmas hymn “Silent Night” came to be.
It began in the bleak year of 1816, when twenty-four-year old Johan Mohr served as assistant priest in Obern, his first parish out of seminary. The events of the year inspired him to write a poem for his congregation entitled Stille Nacht. But it was a full two years later that he asked his friend Franz Gruber to set the words to music. Gruber complied, and the song was debuted following Christmas Eve mass, 1818. It was sung as a duet by Mohr and Gruber, accompanied by Gruber on his guitar.
Obviously, the song spread from that tiny parish throughout that troubled land and far beyond. Over the past 200 years, “Silent Night” has become a favorite Christmas carol in every language and land imaginable. Not only is it a beautiful, sing-able piece of music, but it offers what people desperately need: the assurance that all we know is not all there is.
Singing “Silent Night” allows us to voice the unlikely but wonderful truth that strength does not come from weapons or cruelty but from solidarity. It announces the beautiful moment when God traversed all of heaven and earth to ensure that humans know we matter and are loved. The third verse, especially, points out that God is not looking down on us from afar, angry and disappointed in us, but looking up at us from the muck and mire of our own situations. With all the disarming magnetism of a newborn baby’s smile, God extends understanding and compassion to all of us.
Gruber and Mohr remind us of how, that very first Christmas Eve, God chose to bypass the usual halls of power in order to reveal God’s presence in the world. The angels did not sing to King Herod or Caesar Augustus in their palaces, nor to the high priests in their Temple. They did not appear to the generals in their war rooms nor bankers in their board rooms. The announcement was first given to ordinary folks, and through them, to other ordinary folks.
The message of God-with-us was first delivered to the poorest and least respectable people around—shepherds, the migrant workers of their time. Shepherds were considered so unreliable that they were not even allowed to testify in court. They literally could not bear witness—which might make us wonder why the angels chose them to be the first to hear the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Though we don’t actually know that the shepherds were the angels’ first choice, do we? Just yesterday we considered the possibility that Gabriel might have visited Mary’s next-door neighbor before coming to her, but Mary’s neighbor wasn’t willing to risk bearing God’s love into the world, so she closed the door. Perhaps the Christmas angels tried to spread the good news others first, but their inns, their lives, their hearts were so full that they had no room for God’s message.
OR–maybe the angels deliberately chose to deliver the Good News to the lowly ones first!
The way Jesus Christ arrived, uncelebrated, and out of place, was a foretaste of how he’s live his life. As he grew up Jesus continued to take his place alongside others who were displaced, ignored, or regarded as weak and unsuitable. He surrounded himself with co-workers who were discredited, denied status, tortured, or exterminated, and took his place among them. Jesus knew what misery looked and felt like, and I find some weird consolation in knowing that. Somehow it makes me feel less alone. And I am thankful that a young priest and a music teacher from the 1800’s for finding a way to weave all of that into an unforgettable musical message.
The words and music of “Silent Night” and many other Christmas carols assure us that Jesus was and continues to be mysteriously present in and for whom all those the world disregards. Jesus the Good Shepherd, aligned himself from the very start with a fragile eco-system, and with traumatized, terror-filled victims of dysfunctional governments and systemic violence. I think it’s no mistake that marginalized people were the first to hear the message, “Don’t be afraid; God is here with you, and that is very, very, very good news!”
Since those 1st century shepherds testified to what they saw and heard, the story has continued to be passed down in written, spoken, and sung forms. In 19th century Europe, Johan Mohr and Franz Gruber received and internalized God’s message of peace and goodwill for all of creation and expressed this good news in a beautiful song, which in turn was passed down through the centuries to us. Now are able to join our voices with people from every time and place in celebrating God’s arrival among us. With them we rejoice in the implausible news that Jesus chooses to be beside messed up people who struggle with secret pain or public humiliation, with threats from within and without. We don’t need to be afraid. This is the dawn of redeeming grace.
Go, tell it on the mountains, over the hills, and everywhere! Everyone, everywhere needs know the Good News that Jesus Christ is here with us and for us!