O Sing a Song of Bethlehem: Silent Night
December 24, 2022
Just a couple of weeks ago – on December 7th – we marked an important anniversary. For many it is impossible to hear that date and not think of Pearl Harbor. This year marked the 81st anniversary of that ‘day of infamy,’ but I have something else in mind.
50 years ago – On December 7th, 1972, astronaut Jack Schmitt pointed the lens of his Hasselblad camera out the rear window of the Apollo 17 shuttle and snapped a photograph of planet earth from 28,000 miles away. The swirl of blue water, tan landmass and white whisps of cloud ensured that this photo would forever be known as “the blue marble.”
It remains one of the most reproduced images in history.
The power of this photograph lies in the perspective it affords.
Astronauts have called it “the overview effect.” When seeing Earth from such a vantage point, the frailty of its thin atmosphere against the vast emptiness of the universe, it’s difficult not to feel a bit more protective of our planetary home. That may be why the image was initially popularized by the growing environmental movement of the 1970s.
But in addition to that strong earth care response, fellow Apollo 17 crew member Gene Cernan (“sir-nun”) described the photo as a “true [and accurate] portrait of humanity.”
The Blue Marble image challenged centuries of how we view the world through the lens of our maps. We imagine the earth as a jigsaw puzzle of different-colored countries with well-defined borders separating each from the other.
From the vantage point of outer space, however, every single political, national, cultural and racial boundary becomes absolutely meaningless. It is all one.
The planet looks so quiet and peaceful from up there.
In the six decades of human space flight, I believe that only 556 individuals have had the opportunity to rocket into orbit and gain that kind of perspective.
I’m not sure if that number includes Jeff Bezos, or only those who participated in, like, official aerospace programs.
Regardless, only a tiny sliver of humanity has achieved “the overview effect;” only a fraction of humankind has experienced the way such a perspective can profoundly alter one’s values.
Whatever that precise number might be, if we take the Gospel of John at face value, we must add one more to that number – Jesus Christ.
I know that you may have come here this evening expecting that more soothing story of angels and manger straw and strange, star-guided visitors. Instead you’re getting John who stubbornly resists the trappings of a quaint, Christmas pageant.
For John, Jesus is not just some poor, Jewish kid born in a backwater Roman province. Jesus is this figure of cosmic importance – he was riding shotgun with God at the dawn of creation.
All the stars in the night sky and all the deepest reaches of space – Jesus was there when they first came in to being.
It was certainly an un-precented, even outlandish, claim that John made for sure.
And just to say it, I have zero interest in pitting Faith against Science this evening. The tension between the two is as perennial as these Poinsettias here, but let’s put that on the shelf this evening and consider why John would make such a claim on Jesus’ behalf.
Why is it important for John that Jesus is in fact this cosmic Word of God made flesh?
What might John mean when he suggests that Jesus had something of an “overview effect” on this planet and all who dwell within it.
A reading from John, chapter one.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
These past few weeks we have been in a sermon series called “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem.” We’ve been walking this road to Christmas Eve by way of the great hymns of the season:
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Away in a Manger
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Tonight we close out the series with the candle-light favorite, “Silent Night.” It was written by a priest named Joseph Mohr a little over 200 years ago.
From 28,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, you wouldn’t have known it – but here on the ground it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse where Father Mohr lived.
After more than 20 years of war brought on by Napoleon’s ambition, the longing for peace was palpable. More than anything, people just wanted to get back to normal.
But because the princes of this world do love to make their maps and draw their boundaries; and because they rarely consider the lives of ordinary people when doing so, the small town of Oberndorf suddenly found itself a part of Austria.
Oberndorf’s economy was intimately tied to the maritime city of Laufen, and though it was just a half-mile away…it was now across that border separating them from Bavaria, inaccessible to the locals who had worked in its salt trade for generations.
The livelihood of Oberndorf’s families dried up overnight.
As if it couldn’t get any more grim, Mt. Tambora – a volcano some 12,000 km. away in Indonesia – had erupted the previous spring, spewing a cloud of ash into the atmosphere so great that it obscured the sun as far away as Central Europe. The unusually cool weather that year caused crop failures in the spring of 1816, causing widespread famine throughout this already war-taxed land.
It was in the midst of all this that our young priest penned a poem and called it “Silent Night.”
As with most artifacts from a bygone era, this hymn has accumulated some spectacular lore across the past two centuries.
The story goes that the poem became a hymn out of necessity when Oberndorf’s Church organ malfunctioned on Christmas Eve, 1818. Some versions of the story even pin this Christmas Eve catastrophe on a hungry mouse burrowed in the organ bellows.
Panicking about the thought of a truly silent, music-less Christmas Eve, Father Mohr dusted off the manuscript to his poem, brought it to Franz Gruber, the Church musician, and by evening he had arranged the song for guitar and voice.
Christmas was saved and a legendary hymn came into being.
Like most old stories, this is probably some mixture of fact and fiction. We do have this thing about attaching remarkable origin stories to remarkable pieces of art. And Silent Night is a remarkable hymn.
I had never noticed this before, but one author writing about the hymn notes how the last line in each verse highlights a foundational claim of the Christian faith. The incarnation captured in the line “Christ the Savior is born;” the sovereignty of Christ expressed in “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”
The hymn emphasizes these affirmations by making the singer repeat them twice – the first time in a higher pitch than the rest of the verse, and the second time in a lower pitch.
“Christ the Savior is bo-orn
Christ the savior is born…”
I just thought that was because it sounded nice…you know, when we all sing it somebody other than me sings it.
I had never considered the rhetorical force of the song.
Like the Gospel of John before it, Silent Night makes some pretty remarkable, perhaps even outlandish, affirmations about Jesus.
But you know, I got to thinking that of all the spectacular claims this hymn might make, perhaps none are more incredible than the notion of a truly silent night.
More than the heavy doctrine about the incarnation of God or the Lordship of Christ, that the hymn invites us to imagine a silent night is perhaps the most far-fetched.
It wasn’t silent or peaceful or calm when Joseph Mohr wrote this poem at the tail end of the Napoleonic wars.
Nor was it silent or peaceful or calm when Jesus was actually born in Judea, occupied by Rome – under the thumb of foreign rule.
And we all know that it’s anything but silent here and now –
as Russia and Ukraine cap off the 10th month of hostilities today.
It’s not silent in Haiti where armed gangs hold the entire nation hostage.
It’s not silent in Ethiopia where a cease fire may have paused a civil war, but the tribal tensions will seethe for generations.
It’s not silent in Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan…
Or here in these United States for that fact.
It’s not silent in our families where tension is real and tempers flare easily.
It’s not silent in our own homes when the absence of a loved one is missing because grief itself can be so very loud.
If Jesus wanted – or needed – a truly silent night, he should not have come down here at all.
If God was in search of silence, this is the last place to find it.
Better to remain unborn, at least 28,000 miles away from here, where he could see this blue marble above all the din and dysfunction.
But – that’s not how love works.
Cold detachment; Arm’s length observation?
That’s not love.
That’s not God.
Not if John has anything to say about it.
John is insistent that though Christ is this transcendent figure – the Word of God that was with God, that is God – John is every bit as clear that this same Word became flesh and lived among us.
Why? Because love does not keep its distance.
It plunges head first into the sound and the fury of life lived together.
In fact, if there is any silence to be found down here at all, it is only the quiet carved out by such an incarnate love.
A preacher named Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the Christmas when her father went into hospice care. Her friends and even strangers offered sympathy, fearing this would ruin Christmas for her. But she viewed it another way.
“At first I thought I did not want to leave my father,” she said, “for fear that he would die while I was gone, but after spending 15 minutes in holiday traffic I knew it was more than that. I did not want to leave the state of grace inside that room, where I had only one thing to do and not a doubt in the world that it was the only thing worth doing.
I did not want to leave that place of the deeply real, where my father and I were both in labor. I did not want to be with anyone but him, my family and the nurses who cared for him so tenderly, because there was no pretense among us, no need to chat, lie or glitter.
Over the days that followed, I did what holiday chores I could at a nearby mall. Standing in line behind shoppers yelling into cell phones or watching them struggle through doors with too many bags, I began to feel sorry for people who did not have a hospice room to go back to; who could not benefit from such a sanctuary, where there was no sound for hours but two people breathing? Where else could one find the time to notice that the morning sun was more lemon-colored, while the afternoon sun had more honey in it? In what other economy could a sip of water make everything better, or a fresh shirt be all one really needed?”
I am sure that Jesus appreciates this blue marble we’re spinning on right now. I feel confident that the view from on high is something else to behold – the quiet majesty of creation in the utter silence of space.
But it was never going to be enough to love this creation from a safe distance.
28,000 miles or more must make for an awe-inspiring overview effect.
But it is much too far away for the love of God that could never get close enough…never close enough until it became flesh and dwelt among us. Never close enough until it became as close as our own breath. Never close enough until it could count every hair on our head. Amen.