Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Breaking the Silence with the Word made Flesh

Last week we began the bicentennial celebration of the Paulist Fathers’ founder, Father Isaac Hecker [1819-1888]. Today we mark another bicentennial, for it was on Christmas 1818, exactly 200 years ago, that the familiar Christmas carol Silent Night was sung for the first time in the Austrian church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf bei Salzburg. The parish priest at the time, Father Joseph Mohr, was busy doing all the things he had to do to get ready for Christmas in his little parish church, when (so the story goes) he suddenly found himself without a working organ for Christmas – a stressful situation anywhere, but especially so in that very musical culture, where the villagers most likely regularly expected to hear Mozart performed – and performed well – at Mass. Father Mohr had no choice but to downsize his Christmas expectations. He took out a little poem he had recently written and brought it to his friend Franz Gruber, a local schoolteacher and the church organist, who set it to music that anyone could sing. And so, with Father Mohr singing and Gruber playing the guitar, the two introduced “Silent Night” to the congregation at Christmas Midnight Mass. The carol became an immediate sensation. In World War I, the carol was sung by soldiers on both sides during the famous 1914 “Christmas Truce.” During World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt in singing it with the crowd gathered for the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve 1941. Fans of Downton Abbey, will undoubtedly recall the “Christmas 1924” episode when Lady Mary Crawley sang the translation then common in Britain. And all of us, I am sure, can sing it in the more familiar American translation.

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

Father Mohr and Franz Gruber were great improvisers, and they gave us perhaps the world’s most popular Christmas carol. Even so, how silent and calm actually was that night for Mary and Joseph, forced by imperial decree to trudge to Bethlehem, with no hotel reservation? And it only got worse when, having been turned away from the village inn, they had to settle for a stable and a manger for the baby’s birth - like so many migrants and refugees today, turned away from one border or other and forced to fend for themselves. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph soon became political refugees themselves when, like millions of displaced persons today, they were forced to flee through a hostile environment to find shelter in a foreign country. Fortunately for them, Egypt’s border was open, unlike some borders today. We have no newsreels or YouTube videos from the first century to document that first Christmas for us, but we have more than enough images in today’s world to suggest just what it must have been like, to help us picture that first Christmas. But we also have something more. We have the gospel story, the story that tells us not only what happened but why, when God entered this world to become one of us – as we say all the time in the Creed, kneeling today to give it added emphasis, for us and for our salvation.

Even so, our contemporary American Christmas is increasingly more about sentimentality than salvation. We too tend to want our own Christmases to be sentimentally calm and bright, like the neatly arranged manger scene – or like that perfect Christmas-card family picture, which is one way of saying to the world (and maybe reassuring ourselves) that everything is really just fine. In fact, of course, now as then, Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by an Armenian refugee family in the Netherlands who have found sanctuary this year from the danger of deportation in a Protestant church in The Hague, by other less fortunate immigrants in refugee camps, by those who are homeless and have only strangers for company (like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds), by the lonely and those who mourn, by the sick in hospitals, by soldiers away at war (like my father, 74 years ago, fighting with the 186th Field Artillery Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge, in what one historian called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge”).
Two Christmases before that battle, Pope Pius XII addressed a war-weary world with these words: “As the Holy Christmas Season comes round each year, the message of Jesus, Who is light in the midst of darkness, echoes once more from the crib of Bethlehem … It is a message which lights up with heavenly truth a world that is plunged in darkness by fatal errors. It infuses exuberant and trustful joy into mankind, torn by the anxiety of deep, bitter sorrow. … It promises mercy, love, peace to the countless hosts of those in suffering and tribulation who see their happiness shattered and their efforts broken in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.”
Instead of “All is calm, all is bright,” we have “the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.” But, sentimentality aside, that’s actually the way it is with Christmas. The Christmas Angel breaks the silence to announce the good news of Christ’s coming to live with us – and does so in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and recession, in war and in peace, just as in in the Gospel – and in the carol - the Angel broke the silence of that first Christmas night to bring much needed good news to group of frightened and surprised shepherds.
Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born
Christ the Savior is born

Even so, not everyone welcomed God’s coming into our world. Not everyone welcomes – or even notices – the Savior of the world now either. And now, as then, some may even actively oppose him. Even so, the silence has now been broken, first for the shepherds and, through them, for all of us; and John’s Christmas Day Gospel assures us that, to those who do welcome him, he gives power to become children of God, the God whose Eternal Word, speaks into the silent night of our world to fill our lives with his overflowing grace and mercy, his love and peace, no matter how tempestuous or stormy the day may be.

Meanwhile, we live in a world of noise - social, cultural, and political noise, much of it nonsensical and destructive. Its sheer volume makes us almost scream for silence, a very human reaction to the sensory overload we increasingly have to live with. But Christmas challenges us to take it to the next level - to hear what George Eliot once called “that roar which lies on the other side of silence" – and so to break the silence of sin and complicity in sin, as the Word of God did by shattering the barrier between God and us, by becoming one of us, his Word empowering us with his voice to break our silence with today's good news of great joy for all people. Thus the Angels' song of praise may continue in every time and place - including our own here and now.

This little church has been breaking that silence at the top of this hill now for 163 years. Back then, so I am told, the poor, unpopular immigrants who made up the Catholic community in Knoxville would walk up this hill for Christmas morning Mass, penetrating the gloom of night and early morning with the light of their lanterns. That is what Christ’s coming does for our otherwise silent and dark world, what Christmas calls each of us to do here and now, sharing today’s good news of great joy with all people. Having climbed this hill to this bright and beautiful church and here heard the familiar Christmas story, we, like the shepherds, must make sure it really becomes our story as well, as we go back down the hill to our homes and neighborhoods, reconciled with God by the power of the Christmas story and so set to reconcile one another and our city and our country and our world – transforming anger into peace, fear into trust, frustration into fulfillment, sadness into joy, despair into hope, hatred into love, loneliness into community, rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, 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

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Homily, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 24, 2018.

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