And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”(Luke 2:13-14)
Joseph Mohr was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1792. In 1815, he was ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church and served in a number of parishes in the Salzburg area. As of Christmas 1818, he was the assistant priest at St. Nicholas church in the small village of Obernorf.
Mohr and Franz Gruber, the church organist and schoolmaster in a nearby village, had been talking about Christmas hymns, lamenting that the perfect one had yet to be written. With a special Christmas Eve mass approaching, Mohr cast his mind back to a poem he had written a couple of years before that he thought would make an appropriate song. He tidied it up and took the lyrics to Gruber, asking him to compose an appropriate melody. When Gruber first read the words, he exclaimed, “Friend Mohr, you have found it – the right song – God be praised!”
Gruber accomplished his part of the work, his simple tune complementing Mohr’s words perfectly. When they presented it on Christmas Eve, it evidently made a deep impact on the parishioners. But the two men never intended that their hymn would be used outside their village.
It happened, however, that within a few days of the Christmas Eve mass, Karl Mauracher, an organ builder who was repairing the instrument in Obernorf, heard the song and took a copy back home with him. From there, it spread throughout the entire region and became a popular Tyrolean folk song. Before long, traveling folk singers started including the tune in their shows. In 1838, in appeared in a German hymnal; a year later, it was performed for the first time in the United States when a family of Tyrolean singers toured the country. Soon it was translated into English as “Silent Night.” Over the rest of the 19thcentury, it became a cherished hymn for both German and English speakers.
That brings us to Christmas Eve 1914. The “War to End All Wars” had begun with optimism back in the summer, with soldiers convinced they would make quick work of things and be home by Christmas. But military tactics had not kept pace with the exponential growth of technology; by the end of the year, the Western Front had become locked into a stalemate of trench warfare, with already a million combined lives lost. In some cases, the German and Allied lines were separated by a “no-man’s land” of as little as 100 feet. They could hear the conversations of the enemy. They could smell them cooking. And, periodically, one side or the other would be ordered to go up and over the trench in a fruitless frontal assault.
The Pope, Benedict XV, had called for a truce around Christmas time. But political leaders on both sides ignored him – it’s not easy to mindlessly kill the man on the other side when you realize he is just like you. But a curious thing happened: all along the Western Front, small pockets of men began making their own Christmas truce. It did not come from the top down, but from the bottom up, and it seems to have happened almost spontaneously and simultaneously at different points all along the 400+ mile line. One account comes to us from Albert Moren, stationed in the front line near the French village of La Chapelle d’Armentieres:
It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere,—and about seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights -I don’t know what they were. And then they sang ‘Silent Night’ -‘Stille Nacht’. I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.
The next day, men crossed into no-man’s land. They exchanged gifts. They sang songs and ate together. They even played soccer. And then, at the end of it all, they went back to their trenches.
In some places, the truce lasted only through the day; in others, through the New Year. But in every case, they went back to killing one another. And by the next Christmas, with another year of horror behind them, there was no truce. But for just a brief moment, we have a glimpse of what the world could be. All calm, all bright. All because Christ, the Savior, is born.
May we all carry that great truth with us throughout every day of our lives instead of thinking about it once a year before going back to business as usual.