By: John Gardner
Many people know the story of how Franz Gruber, an organist in Oberndorf, Austria, whose organ was broken, hurriedly composed the melody for “Silent Night” for guitar on Christmas Eve, 1818 – two hundred years ago today. The bicentennial has gone largely though not completely unremarked in this era of narrowcasting and social media, but it deserves attention, not merely for the beautiful music and subtle yet profound lyrics, but because it illustrates something critical to the story and the purpose of Christmas.
Fifty years ago, my parents received as a Christmas gift a commemorative book marking 150 years of “Silent Night, Holy Night.” The book featured translations of the carol into dozens of languages. For an only child whose parents had taught him to learn about the world – all of it – this book was a frequent companion at Christmas time. Languages of which I had never heard (Ladino! Belarusian! Languages of India!) fascinated me, and even if I did not know the words or the script, still I could have a sense that people did speak these languages, and I wanted to learn more about this world into which God humbled himself to descend at Christmas.
The night may well not have been truly silent – angels careened through the skies praising God, after all, and shepherds rushed to a crowded Bethlehem and a full inn – but there is a silence about the night that is entirely appropriate, as Mary and Joseph first witnessed the Child who through whom all things were created and began to contemplate in a different way the infinite and eternal Divine reality behind our reality – Immanuel, God with us, sharing our human flesh.
Why has “Silent Night” been so popular? Fr. Joseph Mohr’s lyrics help memorization and a simple tune with lovely harmonies captures the spirit of holiness of that night in Bethlehem once the manager was laid and Mary gave birth. These two factors also make the carol relatively easy to translate and to perform. The common experience of giving birth is amplified into a succinct statement of the Christian Gospel, needing only an explanation of “redeeming grace” – the Cross and Resurrection, the conclusion of what began in a stable at Bethlehem.
So, as the carol has growth in popularity, it has now been translated into about 300 languages worldwide. Hundreds of millions of Christians who have never known a cold, snowbound Christmas will sing the words and remember Jesus’ birth in their own languages. From its beginning at a small church in Austria, it’s a presaging of the “great multitude’ in Heaven worshipping God described in Revelation 7:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’”
Christ came for everyone. On this page, I’ve included the text of “Silent Night” in English and translations in French (remembering especially the violent protests of the last few weeks in France and the continuing turmoil in DR Congo and elsewhere), Spanish (remembering in particular violence in Mexico and Central America, the tragedy of Venezuela, and the heartbreak at our own border), and Bahasa Indonesia (remembering the attacks on churches, earthquake, and tsunami). You can find a language special to you here and read the words as a prayer for those who speak that language. The variety of translations show not only the diversity of human language but often also the specific emphasis that the translator wishes to highlight, perhaps for cultural reasons. (For the streaming video and webcam from the “Silent Night” church in Oberndorf, see here.)
Despite these tragedies and the difficulties of our world, Christ our Savior is born and that gives hope to all those who sing. Greet him in the stillness of this night and the busyness of our world and await that day in which for those who follow Jesus, as Revelation 7 continues,
“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This is the promise of Easter, that begins on this “Silent Night.” My best wishes for a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.