The Story Behind ‘Silent Night’

The lyrics to Silent Night were written by Josef Mohr, a man whose name was unloved in his home town of Salzburg. Mohr was one of three illegitimate sons to Anna Schoiberin, while his father, Franz, was a mercenary soldier who eventually abandoned the family. To make matters worse, Josef’s godfather was the town executioner.

Perhaps due to his mother’s poverty, the curate of the local Catholic cathedral took Josef in as a foster child. Josef had a proclivity toward music, which was encouraged by the church, and he eventually decided himself to pursue the priesthood. He was ordained August 21, 1815, and was sent to Oberndorf, just north of Salzburg. He there met Franz Xaver Gruber, a local schoolteacher who would become organist at Old Saint Nicholas Church the following year.

Gruber came from equally humble origins, and himself took comfort in his music. The friendship of the two is what led to the creation of Silent Night.

Silent Night—or Stille Nacht in the original German—was created because Mohr needed a carol for worship. On Christmas Eve of 1818, Mohr visited Gruber with a poem he had written a few years earlier. Gruber quickly arranged the song to be played on a guitar with a choir because the church organ was broken. That evening at Midnight Mass, Gruber strapped on his guitar and led the congregation at St. Nicholas in the first rendition of Silent Night.

The original arrangement was a bit faster than the slow, reflective version of the song we know today. But the song was an immediate hit, later being sung by traveling tours and performed before King Frederick William IV of Prussia. Later in the 1800s, the hymn was translated into English and made its way to America by way of a book called Sunday School Hymnal, though with only three of the original six verses.

Today, Silent Night is perhaps the most famous Christmas carol in history. It has been translated into most languages, and the Bing Crosby version is the third-bestselling single in history. A rebuilt Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf is now a cultural landmark (a replica can be found in Frankenmuth, Michigan). The song itself was even declared to be an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011.

1 Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round the virgin mother and child;
Holy infant, tender and mild,
Rests in heavenly peace.

2 Silent night! Holy night!
Guiding star, lend thy light.
See, the eastern wise men bring
Gifts and homage to our King,
Jesus Christ is here.

3 Silent night! Holy night!
Wondrous star, lend thy light.
With the angels let us sing
Hallelujahs to our King,
Jesus Christ is here.

God’s Guidance

Psalm 48[a]

A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah.

Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise,
    in the city of our God, his holy mountain.

Beautiful in its loftiness,
    the joy of the whole earth,
like the heights of Zaphon[b] is Mount Zion,
    the city of the Great King.
God is in her citadels;
    he has shown himself to be her fortress.

When the kings joined forces,
    when they advanced together,
they saw her and were astounded;
    they fled in terror.
Trembling seized them there,
    pain like that of a woman in labour.
You destroyed them like ships of Tarshish
    shattered by an east wind.

As we have heard,Image result for psalm 48 14
    so we have seen
in the city of the Lord Almighty,
    in the city of our God:
God makes her secure
    forever.[c]

Within your temple, O God,
    we meditate on your unfailing love.
10 Like your name, O God,
    your praise reaches to the ends of the earth;
    your right hand is filled with righteousness.
11 Mount Zion rejoices,
    the villages of Judah are glad
    because of your judgments.

12 Walk about Zion, go around her,
    count her towers,
13 consider well her ramparts,
    view her citadels,
that you may tell of them
    to the next generation.

1For this God is our God for ever and ever;
    he will be our guide even to the end.

 

Trust

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1 Corinthians 13 New International Version 

13 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

The love chapter as we all know is very well known and commonly used at weddings. The highlighted verse talks about trust which made me think of the wonderful song ‘I am trusting thee Lord Jesus to the moving tune of Bullinger).

  1. I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus,
    Trusting only Thee;
    Trusting Thee for full salvation,
    Great and free.
  2. I am trusting Thee for pardon;
    At Thy feet I bow;
    For Thy grace and tender mercy,
    Trusting now.
  3. I am trusting Thee for cleansing
    In the crimson flood;
    Trusting Thee to make me holy
    By Thy blood.
  4. I am trusting Thee to guide me;
    Thou alone shalt lead;
    Every day and hour supplying
    All my need.
  5. I am trusting Thee for power,
    Thine can never fail;
    Words which Thou Thyself shalt give me
    Must prevail.
  6. I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus;
    Never let me fall;
    I am trusting Thee forever,
    And for all.

Take time to be Holy

1 Peter 1 New International Version – UK

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Be holy

13 Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’[a]

This beloved devotional hymn comes to us from British layman William Dunn Longstaff (1822-1894). Since his father was a wealthy ship owner, Longstaff was a person of independent financial means. Due to his generous philanthropy, he was influential in evangelical circles. The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, notes that he followed his friend and persuasive Welsh preacher Arthur A. Rees when he left the Anglican priesthood in 1842 after disagreements with his rector and bishop. As a result, Rees established the Bethesda Free Chapel in Sunderland, where Longstaff served as his church treasurer. He married Joyce Burlinson in 1853 and together they had seven children.

Longstaff befriended a number of well-known evangelists such as William Booth (1829-1912), founder of the Salvation Army. Some of Longstaff’s hymns were published in the official magazine of the Salvation Army magazine, The War Cry, during the 1880s. In 1873 the famous American preacher Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and his chief musician Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908) arrived in England to hold a series of evangelistic meetings. The financial sponsor for their revivals died, leaving them with meager means to continue. They were desperately seeking funds, and Longstaff came to their rescue, helping to establish a donor base that allowed Moody to hold revivals in London and Scotland.

Methodist hymnologist Robert Guy McCutchan notes that Longstaff was inspired by the words of Griffith John, a missionary to China, repeated in a meeting in Keswick, England in the early 1880s. John cited I Peter 1:16, “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (KJV), a reference to Leviticus 11:44. The hymn text appeared in Hymns of Consecration, the collection of hymns used during the Keswick event.

Longstaff showed the hymn to Ira Sankey, who in turn passed it on to American songwriter George C. Stebbins (1846-1945) to set in 1882. Stebbins laid it aside and did not recall it until an evangelistic meeting in India, during which the theme of holiness was explored. Stebbins recalled Longstaff’s hymn and set it to music for the revival. He sent his tune HOLINESS to Sankey, who published the hymn in New Songs and Sacred Solos (1888).

Each of the four stanzas begins with the invitation, “Take time to be holy.” The first stanza begins with a devotional request, “speak oft with thy Lord.” The invitation to holiness extends to care for “God’s children” and “those who are weak,” echoing the twin commandments, Matthew 22:36-40, to love God and neighbor.

The second stanza seeks to be alone with Jesus while “the world rushes on.” Through time with Jesus, “like him we shall be,” and, as a result, others will witness this “likeness.” In Methodist theology, this might be seen as a journey toward Christian perfection.

In stanza three, Jesus becomes the “guide” that we follow and trust. The final stanza suggests that when we “Take time to be holy,” our souls become calm. This calmness leads to Jesus’ control in our lives. Control manifests itself in “fountains of love.” This love in turn “fit[s us] for service above.”

Carlton Young distinguishes between Longstaff’s use of holiness and the Wesleyan understanding of personal holiness that demands a “radical change of heart and the resulting release from the bonds of sin as embodied in the Wesleyan precepts of entire sanctification, perfecting grace, perfect love, and Christian perfection.” To illustrate the transforming nature of holiness, the Rev. Young cites a section of the opening stanza of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Love divine, all loves excelling”:

Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
end of faith as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.

In addition, Longstaff’s sense of devotional holiness also does not embrace a Wesleyan sense of social justice. This hymn has appeared in Methodist hymnals in the United States since 1901, reflecting the evangelical roots of Methodism in this country

  1. Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
    Abide in Him always, and feed on His Word.
    Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
    Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.
  2. Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
    Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.
    By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be;
    Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.
  3. Take time to be holy, let Him be thy Guide;
    And run not before Him, whatever betide.
    In joy or in sorrow, still follow the Lord,
    And, looking to Jesus, still trust in His Word.
  4. Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul,
    Each thought and each motive beneath His control.
    Thus led by His Spirit to fountains of love,
    Thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.