As we arrive at Christmas, I have chosen to close my Advent Church Notes series on Christmas carols with some historical facts of, and personal reflections on, the beloved carol, “Silent Night.”
First, let’s take a look at the above detail from the altar painting depicting the Mother Mary in the parish church at Mariapfarr, Austria. Notice that the baby Jesus is depicted as a fair-skinned, blonde-haired toddler. Although this may draw giggles, or even disdain, to our 21st century worldly eyes, one must appreciate the creative license taken by the artist to open the door for an emotional connection between the work of art and its original parochial viewer.
From this altar image of Madonna and Child, we can begin to create our own understanding of the meaning behind the first stanza of “Silent Night”:
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”
Taking into account that this is a translation of the original German, we may agree with some historians that this very altar painting inspired Joseph Mohr to write “Silent Night.”
So, who was this Joseph Mahr? Joseph Mahr was born on December 11, 1792 in Salzburg. Joseph was stigmatized from birth, as he was born out of wedlock to a mother who knitted for a living. His father, a soldier, deserted his position the year he was born.
Joseph grew up in poverty, inhabiting a cold and damp home with his mother, grandmother, stepsister, and another relative. Fortunately, the young boy’s great intelligence and musical talent was noticed by the local choir vicar, and from then on Joseph was nurtured and cared for by those in a position to offer him opportunities to expand his God-given talents. At the age of 19, Joseph had to get special permission to attend the Salzburg seminary for priests, due to his stigma as being born out of wedlock. In 1815, at the ripe young age of 23, Joseph had to receive special permission to be ordained as a priest, as the required age of ordination at that time was 25.
Joseph began his first position as assistant priest in Mariapfarr. The 12th century church in which he served, named “Zu inserer Lieben Frau” (to our beloved woman), was a popular pilgrimage site for Christians, and know with its beautiful depiction of the Madonna and Child on the altar. This altar image also depicts the three magi gazing adoringly at the mother and child. During the Advent season in 1818, Mohr asked his friend, Franz Gruber, to compose music for a Christmas poem he had written. After Mass that Christmas day, “Silent Night” was performed by Mohr and Gruber, with Mohr accompanying on his guitar. After his untimely and young death, this guitar would be the only possession Mohr left behind.
Eventually, Joseph Mohr rose in rank, and ended his career as a vicar in the town of Wagrain.
Mohr’s Christian faith, along with his personal experience of living as a child in poverty, moved him to build a school just for the education of the community’s poor children. He also founded a fund to help parents pay for their child’s tuition. Later, he also founded a home for the poor and elderly. On December 4, 1848, at the age of 56, Joseph Mohr died of a lung-related disease. Although he never knew how popular and meaningful his Christmas carol would become, my prayer is that Joseph, now one of the angels singing, “Alleluia” to our newborn King, is aware of the impact his faith and love for the needy as a disciple of Jesus Christ has made on the world!
The original poem, “Silent Night”
Silent night! Holy night!
All are sleeping, alone and awake
Only the intimate holy pair,
Lovely boy with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Not far from Stoughton Wisconsin, where my family and I lived for 19 years before moving back to Minnesota, sits the little town of Milton. This unassuming community, founded in 1838, once sat at the military crossroads between Chicago and Madison, and also the road between Janesville and Ft. Atkinson. It is no wonder then, that in 1845 the founder of the town built the Milton House, an octagonal-shaped hotel for weary travelers to stop and rest before moving on toward their destination. I never gave the town of Milton a second thought until my boys shared their experiences while on a school field trip to the Milton House to tour the Underground Railroad. I was shocked when I learned that a portion of the Underground Railroad was located just a stone's throw from our house. From then on, the image of the Railroad, once vague and distant in the mind of this white descendent of slaveowners, claimed a distinct and personal place in my heart; who knows--even some of those enslaved by my ancestors may have travelled through Milton on their way to Canada and to freedom!
For the past three weeks of Advent I have been featuring Christmas carols that speak of hope in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty. One could say that these carols are 'songs of resistance,' in that the hope and joy of which they speak is in resistance to the sources of all sorrow and suffering: sin and death. As we approach the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I would like to offer a bit of information that I found on umcdiscipleship.org on another 'song of resistance' in the form of a well-known Christmas carol-- "Go Tell It On the Mountain":
"The Fisk Jubilee Singers (drawing their name from Leviticus 25—the year of jubilee) were founded as a ten-member touring ensemble to raise funds for debt-ridden Fisk University. Taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, they departed on October 6, 1871, from Nashville on their difficult, but ultimately successful eighteen-month tour, a triumph that is still celebrated annually as Jubilee Day on the campus.
Taking the spiritual to white and black audiences in the United States and Europe earned the school and the spiritual an international reputation. The small ensemble of two quartets and a pianist grew to a full choral ensemble. Other historically black colleges eventually followed the same pattern, including Howard University (Washington, D.C.) and Tuskegee Institute (now University, Tuskegee, Alabama).
The earliest version of the spiritual appeared in in Religious Folk Songs of The Negro, as Sung on The Plantations, new edition (1909) with the heading 'Christmas Plantation Song '. "
John Wesley Work, Jr. (1872?-1925), who led the Fisk Jubilee Singers from 1898-1904 with his brother, is thought to have written an adaptation of the original song based on Luke 2:8-20, and can be found in the United Methodist Hymnal, No. 251:
Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;
go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born!
1 While shepherds kept their watching, o’er silent flocks by night,
behold throughout the heavens, there shone a holy light. [Refrain]
2 The shepherds feared and trembled, when lo! above the earth
rang out the angel chorus, that hailed our Savior’s birth. [Refrain]
3 Down in a lowly manger, the humble Christ was born,
and God sent us salvation, that blessed Christmas morn. [Refrain]
As we approach the day of the birth of our Savior, may you feel the hope that inspired this heart-lifting Christmas song!
Ludwig Van Beethoven
(1770 – 1827)
Psalm 71: 23
My lips will shout for joy
when I sing praises to you;
my soul also, which you have rescued.
Most of us have heard of the great 19th century composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven. And most of us have heard variations of the famous last movement of his Ninth Symphony in tv commercials and movies --even if we were unfamiliar with the original setting. Many hymnals contain a version of “Ode to Joy” that uses a modern, more religious text.
I did a bit of research on “Ode to Joy”, and would like to share with you some interesting tidbits, beginning with Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony: *
The symphony was the last of his symphonies, being completed 3 years before his death. By the time of its premier in Vienna, Austria, Beethoven was completely deaf. At the end of the piece, the crowd began to applause, but Beethoven was unaware that the piece had ended, due to his deafness. Evidently, the orchestra ended a few measures before Beethoven. One of the female soloists graciously walked over, and turned him around so that he could accept the applause of the audience! Beethoven’s Ninth was the first symphony to include soloists and chorus.
The words Beethoven used for the last movement were taken from a poem written by Friedrich von Schiller, titled, “Ode to Joy”.
In 1907, Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) wrote his own words to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, and titled the hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”, which was later published in 1911. Van Dyke wrote of this hymn: “These verses are simple expressions of common Christian feelings and desires in this present time—hymns of today that may be sung together by people who know the thought of the age, and are not afraid that any truth of science will destroy religion, or any revolution on earth overthrow the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, this is a hymn of trust and joy and hope.” ** Since is first publication, “Joyful, Joyful” has appeared in 246 hymnals. Many artists have recorded this song of joy: Amy Grant, Pentatonix, and Carrie Underwood.
The words to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”:
1 Joyful, joyful, we adore You,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow'rs before You,
Op'ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!
2 All Your works with joy surround You,
Earth and heav'n reflect Your rays,
Stars and angels sing around You,
Center of unbroken praise;
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flow'ry meadow, flashing sea,
Chanting bird and flowing fountain
Praising You eternally!
3 Always giving and forgiving,
Ever blessing, ever blest,
Well-spring of the joy of living,
Ocean-depth of happy rest!
Loving Father, Christ our Brother,
Let Your light upon us shine;
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.
4 Mortals, join the mighty chorus,
Which the morning stars began;
God's own love is reigning o’er us,
Joining people hand in hand.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife;
Joyful music leads us sunward
In the triumph song of life.
* Source: Charlottesymphony.org
** Source: Wikipedia
May this season of Advent fill your heart with joy!
Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)
"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"
In last week's Church Notes, I wrote about the life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his well-known poem-turned Christmas carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." This week, I offer the background of another well-known carol--"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", whose words were written by Edmund Hamilton Sears in 1849. Sears, a Unitarian pastor, was born in Berkshire, Massachusetts in 1810. After graduating from the Theological School of Harvard University in 1837, he became pastor of the Unitarian Society in Wayland, Mass. , and later at a congregation in Lancaster. After suffering a breakdown, he returned to Wayland, where he serve as a part-time preacher. It was during this time that Sears wrote the words to "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." As with Longfellow, the words of this carol reflect the effects of his mental state and of the state of the world at that time--the Revolution in Europe and the Mexican-American War:
1 It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, good will to men, from heaven's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.
2 Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heavenly music floats o'er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains, they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o'er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.
3 And ye, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!
4 For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold
when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.
Our UMC Hymnal contains the above 4 verses, as do most hymnals. But for some reason, one verse was long ago omitted:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled two-thousand years of wrong;
and we at war on earth hear not the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease the strife, and hear the angels sing.
Like an unfinished puzzle, read through the poem again and try to figure out where to put the final piece--the missing verse. I'm thinking it goes after the second verse. Here's why: verse 1 talks in the past tense about the angels appearing when Jesus was born, while verse 2 speaks in the present tense. Verse 3 is also written in the present tense, but inviting the weary traveler on the journey of life to stop and listen to the angels sing (could it be a reflection of the sad journey after Sear's breakdown?). The poem ends with reference to the future with the completion of God's New Creation, when Christ returns to earth for eternity. So, if you consider the flow of time from start to finish, it seems to me that the missing puzzle piece belongs after verse 2, which ends with reference to the sin-filled city, mentioned in the Old Testament, of Babel, and before the invitation for the weary traveler to stop and listen to the angels. Let me know where you think the missing verse belongs!
As we continue on our shared journey in Advent, may you take time to stop and sing, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" ; who knows--you may just hear the flutter of angels' wings!