The Not So Silent Night

SERMON Christmas Eve Luke 2 1 20

What would Christmas Eve be without singing Silent Night? I know that I have sung this hymn every single Christmas Eve of my life. The words and melody usher in the overwhelming sense of the heavenly peace the Christ child himself brings to our world! Tonight, this beloved Christmas carol turns 200 years old.

“Silent Night” was written first as a poem by Father Joseph Mohr in response to the unrest that the Napoleonic wars had caused for the whole region surrounding Austria. According to legend, St. Nicholas Church, where Father Mohr was serving in Oberndorf, Austria, was facing some significant building maintenance issues –their organ had broken down just in time for Christmas! The young priest wanted to ensure that there was at least one hymn sung at the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, so he asked their minister of music, Franz Gruber, to write a melody for his poem that could be played on the guitar. Yes, one of our most beloved Christmas carols was written in response to the chaos of war and in the midst of a liturgical crisis at St. Nicholas’ church.

Today, it’s hard for any of us to imagine not singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve.

But I wonder, given our Christmas scripture reading from Luke’s gospel, was it REALLY a “Silent Night” on that first Christmas Eve?

Bethlehem was bursting at the seams with people who had been forced to travel there for the census. The crowds overwhelmed the small city. Every comfortable bed in town was occupied! With so many people frustrated that their plans for the month had been interrupted by the inconvenience of this edict handed down by their oppressors, I doubt there was much silence in the inns of Bethlehem.

Was it REALLY a “Silent Night”?

Amid all the irritation and frustration, no one seemed to notice that a teenage girl labored in one of the barns. She had no comfortable bed to rest on. She had no doula. She had no experienced midwife. She had no Lamaze classes or soothing music or hot showers for her aching muscles. She had no scrubbed and sanitized environment, no monitors giving the peace of mind that all is well…

Birthing is a dangerous business.

Her fiancée paced around the barn, fetching hot water and preparing to play midwife –a role he’d never imagined himself in, a role in which he had no training, a role better left to the wise women of the village than a carpenter.

All Mary had were her silent prayers and her primal screams. In the throws of fully human childbirth, even the mother of our Lord, strong, and brave, and bold as she was, would not have labored in silence.

All Mary had were her silent prayers and primal screams until the instant when our Lord took his first breath. As his newborn lungs filled with oxygen, God himself let out a tiny primal scream to match his mother’s. God himself had been laboring with her, struggling to be born into our world through pain and hope and humanity at its most basic level. God himself let out a tiny and persistent scream, and galaxies quaked across the universe. God himself screamed and screamed until he was lovingly swaddled in bands of cloth by his mother, and placed upon her chest for nourishment. At last, the barn in Bethlehem was silent as Jesus ate the first of many meals he would share with us. He shared his first meal with his mother, as they both recovered from the difficult and dangerous work of bearing God for us.

It may HAVE been a “Silent Night” for the shepherds who were watching their fields by night. Their sheep had all nestled down for the night and the shepherds lay in the fields, gazing up at the stars, pondering “Why do you think the sky is shining so brightly tonight?”

It may have been a “Silent Night,” but then an angel of the Lord appeared before them and the glory of the Lord shone more brightly than the dazzling stars overhead. The angel proclaimed the very best news that any ear has ever heard,  “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Then one angel’s voice turned into a thunderous, joy-filled chorus as every angel in the heavenly host sang Happy Birthday for the holy infant and Joy to the World, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to all people.”

The shepherds who had once been silent, ran at once into town to find the newborn Messiah and his mother. They came bursting into the barn, never a wise thing to do when a family has just settled their newborn for the night. They told Mary and Joseph everything that had happened in the fields, every word that the angel had said, and then they ran out, waking up the whole town as they praised God all the way back to their field!

It was anything BUT a “Silent Night” that first Christmas in Bethlehem, but it was the holiest night the world has ever known. And because of all of those screams and songs and shouts of jubilation, our hearts are now able to rest in heavenly peace. This message of universal peace is why the carol “Silent Night” has such enduring spiritual value. Christ risked a perilous birth in a barn in Palestine to make true peace possible in our world. God’s desire for us and for our world is for all people to hold peace within their hearts. This is the gift God gives us through the birth of Jesus Christ. God’s gift to us is lasting peace, not someday, but now, one person at a time. As we adore the humanity and divinity contained within that barn in Bethlehem, as we remember the chaos and grumbling that filled the town around him, we know that Christ comes to us today in the midst of crisis and frustration. Christ comes to us and dwells with us and swaddles us up in his love, feeds us, comforts us, and gives us the peace we need for whatever we find ourselves enduring. Heavenly peace is our gift from God, not just at Christmas time, but every day of this joyful and challenging life.  Whether you find yourself in silence this Christmas, or surrounded by noise, whether you find yourself resting in the fields or singing along with the angel’s song or unleashing anguished screams or bitter frustration, because of that first “Not So Silent Night” Christ is born, and Christ is with us, and Christ gives us his peace forevermore. Amen.

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