“Auntie Jess, please sing one more song!”
I was babysitting my best friends’ two little boys while they indulged in a much-needed date night. The above request came just as I thought my duties for the evening were finished.
Now, it was time for me to watch an episode of Call the Midwife.
While I knew this plea was a stall tactic, I couldn’t help but indulge their earnest request. Having already sung the standard bedtimes songs and mentally fatigued from keeping up with their youthful energy the last several hours, I was at a loss as to what to sing.
As I plopped back down on the beanbag in their nightlight illuminated room, I started singing Silent Night. This was a deviation from the normal bedtime repertoire. However, it was December, and Christmas music was playing nonstop, so the song selection wasn’t all that surprising, considering I’d probably heard it earlier that day.
Silent night, holy night.
Son of God, oh, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.
When I finished singing, the room was silent. In the absence of any further requests, I stealthily made my way out.
Looking back, I couldn’t have predicted the impact this very ordinary night would have on me and the boys, nor that the boys would request this Christmas carol every Sunday morning at our small family gatherings when our state went into lockdown and our churches shut down.
Just one month after I serenaded the boys, the world became aware of COVID-19, and life as we knew it came to a screeching halt. As we witnessed the coronavirus spread from country to country and watched fear consume us with the same tenacity as the disease, we also witnessed a world very much in need of the hopeful refrain, “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”
As a young child, I experienced a certain wonder when I heard Silent Night. I felt a connection with the baby Jesus. Like me, he was born, he was a child, he had parents, he cried and most likely, he enjoyed playing. All things I could relate to. As an adult, I’m moved by the powerful simplicity of the song. It’s humble yet packs a theological punch.
I like reflecting on the import of Jesus’ titles, Savior, Son of God and Lord. I’m moved by the magnitude of the Incarnation, God in-caro, God made flesh. I enjoy imagining what that night was like; what Mary and Joseph were thinking as they welcomed their child, God’s child, on that sacred night.
Like Jesus, the song itself was born on a humble, unassuming night. Josef Mohr penned this famous carol several days before Christmas in 1818. Tradition tells us that a combination of a broken church organ, a poignant Christmas play, an idyllic nighttime winter scape in Oberndorf (Mohr’s small village in Austria) and his own meditations on Matthew and Luke’s nativity scenes inspired Mohr to set a previously written poem to music.
On Christmas Eve, accompanied by a guitar rather than an organ, Mohr sang Silent Night for the first time in St. Nicholas’ Church. I doubt Mohr could’ve predicted the impact of this very ordinary night, nor that his song would be translated into 140 different languages almost 200 years later.
I also doubt Mohr could have foreseen that his song would be sung out of season by a small family every Sunday in Fresno, California, as a way to illuminate the darkness of 2020. Silent Night is a seasonal song. It was composed for, and meant to be sung at, Christmastime.
However, the events of this past year, as well as my best friends’ two little boys, have taught me that Silent Night is perhaps meant to be sung year-round, in every season, particularly, this COVID-19 season. Simply because the hope that arrives with Jesus’ birth isn’t seasonal. It doesn’t expire after one night or one month.
While Silent Night depicts the scene of Jesus’ birth, more importantly it captures the promise that broke into the world on that holy night. There was much need for hope at the time Jesus was born. While the night of Jesus’ birth may have been serene, the world he was born into was not. The first century was wrought with oppression, injustice, political rivalry, socioeconomic disparity, uncertainty and fear. A world not unlike our own.
As we look back on this past year, it’s been anything but calm and bright. Our world has been upended, ravaged and polarized by a pandemic. A pandemic which has caused much personal loss and grief, but which has also revealed the deepest divisions within our country—an entirely different communal loss and grief. We’ve known the paralyzing effect of fear and anxiety. We’ve experienced the stress of living with prolonged uncertainty. Perhaps the only stillness we’ve seen is the empty parking lots in malls, businesses and churches. Like those in Jesus’ day, we’re also in much need of hope. Silent Night proclaims Jesus, who offers this.
Mohr knew that the good news began in the manger. The child was actually the Christ, God’s anointed. He was the Savior, the promised deliverer that would rescue God’s people from their suffering. The holy infant, so tender and mild was both Lord and LORD, the ruler worthy of respect and reverence and the one true God now appearing in flesh.
On this holy night, God declared his commitment to his creation. He was undeterred by the ills of the world and the brokenness of humanity. He didn’t cringe or balk at society’s ugliness but rather responded in love by becoming an active participant in and through Jesus.
God is just as committed to us and our world today. He’s not discouraged by disease or illness. He’s not frightened by strife or division. Rather, he enters into it, offering to heal, redeem and reconcile it. He declares over it that he is Savior and LORD. Only in focusing on this will we reclaim the calm, peace and stillness which Mohr’s song speaks of.
Churches may still be closed this Christmas. We won’t all be singing Silent Night a capella, by candlelight, surrounded by our community. However, my prayer is that we participate in this symbolic act in our own small family gatherings. And in so doing, that we see the light that Jesus brings into the darkness our world is currently living through. In a time that seems so uncertain, may we be moored by the declarations in this simple song. At this Christmastide, and all year long, may we look to a new dawn, a new beginning of God’s redeeming grace.
Jessica Michele Rutkosky is a Fresno Pacific University adjunct faculty member teaching in biblical studies and early childhood development. She is a 2013 graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary with a master’s degree in theology. She blogs at musingsofatheologist.com.