In a noisy world, the true power is in a Silent Night


National Post, 21 December 2019

Peace, whether the absence of conflict or true 'heavenly peace,' is the desire of every human heart

It’s been a noisy year. A noisy few years in fact.

We are cursed in these pages to devote more space to politics than is healthy, certainly more time than what sane, normal people would allocate to that necessary, intended to be noble, but sometimes notorious and occasionally nefarious part of our common life.

Politics this year has brought us noise, noise and more noise. There is noise in the streets of France, as the home of the 2015 Paris climate accord proves to have mixed feelings about carbon taxes. There is noise in the mother of all parliaments, as London cannot quite figure out how to disunite from the European Union and still remain a United Kingdom across the Irish Sea. There is noise in the Oval Office, where people who are old enough to know better — Donald Trump, 72, Nancy Pelosi, 78, Chuck Schumer, 68 — shout at each other like children in grade school. Actually, not like children in grade school, where there is usually adult supervision.

Oh, there is noise aplenty. In Canada, tranquillity is a Charter value. At least it’s as much a part of the Charter of Rights as other things the courts have discovered there. And there is “peace” and “order” back in the original Constitution of 1867. So we have less noise, but pointed words are winging their way across the Dominion as energy policy — carbon taxes, pipelines — is proving to be rather enervating. The prime minister is not noisy in an abrasive way, but his words are manifold, blanketing the whole of the land, gentle like the morning dew and just as evanescent before the rising sun.

And so we yearn for a bit of quiet, a little time out of the harsh glare of the lights. We yearn this year more than most for a silent night.

Fittingly, it’s the bicentennial of that beloved Christmas carol, sung for the first time on Christmas Eve 1818.

Stille Nacht, what we know as Silent Night, was a poem written by a Catholic priest in the Habsburg empire, Josef Mohr. He wrote it in 1816 after a summer of violence in Salzburg. Memories of the Napoleonic wars were still fresh, and Europe as a whole yearned for both peace and quiet.

On Christmas Eve 1818, desirous of employing his poem as a carol for Midnight Mass in his Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, not far from Salzburg, he needed a melody. So that very Christmas Eve he visited his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolteacher who lived a good wintry walk of three kilometres away in the neighbouring town of Arnsdorf. Gruber composed the simple melody in just a few hours, and Stille Nacht was heard for the first time that night.

Silent Night belongs to that long tradition of sacred music composed for liturgical purposes that subsequently enriches the entire culture, not unlike Christmas itself. The hymn was translated from one culture to another, from Catholic Austria to Protestant America, by the Rev. John Freeman Young, an Episcopalian priest. And its claims about Christmas are bold: “Christ the Saviour is born,” and that this Jesus is “Lord at thy birth.” It is unambiguously Christian; it is a hymn neither to snow nor chestnuts nor silver bells.

Yet, many who do not regard that “holy night” in Bethlehem as the “dawn of redeeming grace” are nonetheless exceedingly fond of Silent Night. How to account for that?

Peace, whether the absence of conflict or true “heavenly peace,” is the desire of every human heart. And somehow we know that this peace is something that our world itself cannot give.

A few years before the centennial of Silent Night, it featured in the Christmas truce of 1914 at Ypres. British and French troops scrambled out of their trenches to meet German troops on Christmas Day. They sang Christmas carols together, and Silent Night was the only one all of them knew. They sang “all is calm” together, and then went back to fighting for nearly four more years, children of the same God.

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