It was Christmas Eve, 1818, in a small alpine village in Austria, where a poor priest named Joseph Mohr approached Franz Gruber, his friend and the town headmaster, with a pressing request. Mohr had recently discovered that the organ at his Saint Nicholas Church was broken, and without it, there would be no music for his congregation’s Christmas Eve service that night. So with a sense of urgency, Mohr handed to Herr Gruber a three-stanza poem he had written, with the request to compose a song to be played on the guitar. Gruber sat down and quickly composed Stille Nacht, or in English, Silent Night.
And from such desperate and humble beginnings, much like those of the King to whom Mohr’s lyrics referred, came the song that was to become one of the most beloved of all Christmas carols.
It was Christmas Eve, 1914, and the Great War that would one day be known as World War I had been raging for over six months. The weary soldiers on both the German and British sides of the Western Front – fathers and uncles, brothers and sons – huddled in the cold, wet darkness of their muddy trenches. Their superior officers had ordered, very specifically and very sternly, that there was to be no truce for Christmas – the battle was to wage on. Somewhere in the stillness of the night, however, a soldier began to sing an old, familiar carol, Silent Night, the melody wafting through the air to his enemy’s ears. A second voice joined in, and then another. Against their superior officers’ orders, soldiers up and down the front lines began to sing the song together – some in German, some in English. Imagine that: enemies singing together in the middle of a war. Bravely, the men from both sides crept out of their shadowy trenches and into the war-ravaged area in the middle known as No Man’s Land, where they gathered and celebrated Christmas together, giving small gifts of coffee, cigarettes, and candy to one another, mourning each other’s losses, and singing of the God whose heavenly peace could bring an end to all war.
It was, in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who later wrote of the event, “one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war.”
It was Christmas Eve, 2002, and a small group of songwriters and musicians trudged through the snow to gather in a rustic bar & grille in Omaha, Nebraska, to perform a few songs they had written. The audience members, by all appearances, were as rough as the bar in which they sat, and one could see their lives etched in the hard lines of their faces as they listened to the tunes and politely applauded after each one. At the end of the evening, the last performer standing alone on the stage finished his final song and looked out over the crowd. Without much forethought, he began to play on his guitar the chords of a familiar hymn, almost two hundred years old. A holy hush crept over that ragtag audience as, one by one, these strangers joined together to sing Silent Night.
From there on that stage, I watched the soft, and perhaps wistful, light enter those eyes as God once again drew near to mankind.
And so we see that such is the power of God through a song – or through a painting, a film, a photograph, a poem, or any other piece of art that communicates the nature of beauty and the beauty of nature, all of which flows from and reflects the Giver of all good things. In this world that is subjected to the unraveling effect of time, it is what makes art good and what makes good art essential.
We live in a society whose fascination with power has seeped into the very fabric of its culture, like water creeping up a piece of cloth when its edge is dipped in a pool. We see this fascination in business and politics, we see it in the arts and entertainment, we even see it in the modern Western Church. We somehow have come to equate power with position, volume, visibility, and wealth, and so we too often grasp for more of those as we misidentify them as the power of God.
And yet, so little of that was present that powerful first Night.
History, we rediscover time and again, offers insight to our future without determining what it will be. This world of ours, in all its fallen weariness, will continue to provide us – no, it will continue to thrust upon us – what can only be described as brokenness, whether it is a broken organ, or a broken war, or broken lives. And yet, over and over, history reveals to us the God who still bows low to touch us, to bind us together. History reveals to us the God who offers the simple, yet overarching, promise of future silent nights through the life of a bawling baby who arrived, with no worldly fanfare, in a sleepy town in the Middle East. History reveals the God who gently shakes us awake to whisper His Word made flesh:
Emmanuel. God is with us.
Merry Christmas from
Shun Lee & the Hollywood Connect Staff
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© 2012 Shun Lee. All rights reserved.