December 24, 2023

In 1815, a newly ordained 23 year old priest was assigned to a parish in the remote mountain village of Mariapfarr, in the Austrian Alps.  This young priest had come from an uncommon background.  He was born to an unwed mother.  In fact, he was her third illegitimate child.  In the early nineteenth century that was a blot on one’s life that was not easily overcome.  As a child, he was part of a marginal family; the only thing he had going for him was his musical talent.  Because of his abilities, he found someone to sponsor his education.  But, as an illegitimate child, even when he was fully educated he needed a special dispensation from the Pope to be ordained a priest.

So it was that he came to the people of  Mariapfarr.  In his first parish assignment for less than a year, he wrote a poem, then set it aside.  A year later he was reassigned.  They sent him on to the picturesque little town of Oberndorf on the Salzach River, also in the Alps.  There, he pastored the Nicola-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas).  On Christmas Eve in his second year there, 1818, it was discovered that mice had eaten out the bellows of the church organ.  In a panic, with no musical accompaniment for the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, he went to the schoolmaster and organist Franz Gruber, and asked him to compose a guitar accompaniment for this poem he had written two years earlier in Mariapfarr.  Gruber obliged, and Father Mohr and headmaster Gruber sang the song to Gruber’s guitar accompaniment at the Midnight Mass that evening.  And that was that.

Or, that would have been that, had it not been for another little twist of fate.  In 1825, the little church finally raised the funds and commissioned the organ repairman, Carl Mauracher, to rebuild the old organ at St. Nicholas’.   While working on the organ, Mauracher found a handwritten copy of Mohr’s song.  He took it home to the Ziller Valley in the mountains of Tyrol.  It caught on and spread from village to village through the mountains.

The song was written, of course in the language they used, German, and it was titled Stille Nacht – in English, Silent Night.

The verses you will sing this morning are only three of the original six that Mohr wrote, and they are taken out of order.  The three verses are Mohr’s first verse, his sixth verse, and finally, his second verse.  They bear an approximate correlation to the three verses that we sing in English.  You’ll find a more literal translation of the original German text in your bulletin announcements (along with the German words, for those who are interested).

Let’s hear two of the verses (verses one and four) as they may have sounded to those folks gathered on that Christmas Eve in a tiny village in the Austrian Alps nearly two hundred years ago.

[Play Strophe 1 &4 “Stille Nacht”]

Today, it may be the most treasured of carols sung at Christmas.  It’s sung in virtually every language on the planet, in every corner of the globe.  It has become the very essence of Christmas – a song that is almost a universal language in its own right.  Mohr and Gruber had no idea what they were throwing together at the last minute on that panicky Christmas Eve, all because of the work of a mischievous little church mouse.

That’s one of the great wonders of life, isn’t it?  We never know in any moment what might become of a simple act – what great results might spring from the least of intentions.  And maybe that’s the great wonder of Christmas: that it could be at once such an ordinary human event and such a divine moment – the simple birth of a baby in a stable, attended by common shepherds from the field, and the birth of hope itself, heralded by angels, a moment that would change the world forever.

This is the mystery of Christmas.  It is a birth, both scandalously common and profoundly wondrous.  And in that mystical union of the human and the divine that is the Nativity there lives the germ of a mystery that pervades all our lives.

This Christmas mystery was eloquently conveyed by Oscar Hijuelos, in his novel, Mr. Ive’s Christmas.  Mr. Ives had something in common with our hymn writer, Father Mohr, and with Jesus of Nazareth, for that matter.  They all started out life with a problematic birth.  Mr. Ives was an orphan in pre-World War II New York City.  Here’s the account from Hijuelos’ book:

“Of course, while contemplating the idea of the baby Jesus, perhaps the most wanted child in the history of the world, Ives would feel a little sad, remember that years ago someone had left him, an unwanted child, in a foundling home . . . A kind of fantasy would overtake him, a glorious vision of angels and kings and shepherds worshipping a baby: nothing could please him more, nothing could leave him feeling a deeper despair.  Enflamed [sic] by the sacred music and soft chanting, his heart lifted out of his body and winged its way through the heavens of the church.  Supernatural presences, invisible to the world, seemed thick in that place, as if between the image of the Christ who was newly born and the image of the Christ who would die on the cross and, resurrected, return as the light of the world, there flowed a powerful, mystical energy.  And his sense of that energy would leave Ives, his head momentarily empty of washing machine and automobile advertisements, convinced that, for all his shortcomings as a man, he once had a small, if imperfect, spiritual gift.  That, long ago, at Christmas.”

That “mystical energy” that Hijuelos wrote about is not just a long-ago experience, and it is a gift received not only at Christmas.  Every moment of our existence is filled with the promise of Christmas.  Everything you do, every word you speak, bears the seed of God’s mystery.  You do not know what wonder God will bring out of your own simple efforts.

You do not know if a smile and pat on the back extended to some young person might be the gesture that leads them to make a simple decision that leads to another decision, that ends in some great accomplishment.  You do not know if an evening spent working with a group of folks to plan a program leads to someone being inspired by what you do, an inspiration that motivates them to make one small change to their course in life, and that one life ends up having a major impact on the lives of countless others.  You do not know if a homeless, hungry couple who stumble into your back yard, might be about to give birth to the savior of the world in your garage.

Johann Hiernle, the choirmaster in Salzburg couldn’t have known what he was starting.  One fine day, he decided to take a chance on a rag-tag, outcast little boy he found playing on the steps leading up to the monastery.  The boy was one of the several illegitimate children of a local woman, scorned by the community.  When Hiernle made the decision to give the boy a chance at an education, he could never have imagined that two hundred years later we would be faithfully singing that little boy’s Christmas Carol, or that Christmas for us would hardly be the same without it.

That’s the divine mystery of Christmas.  Let’s sing about it.

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