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!