#2 "Silent Night" (tune: Franz Gruber, text: Joseph Mohr, based on Luke 2:7-14)
I had a tough time deciding which of the two remaining hymns should be #1 and which should be #2. "Silent Night" is, to me, the holiest of the fourteen hymns. Some of the other hymns leave me a feeling of reverence, but only this one makes me feel as though I'm on sacred ground. There's something about the slow, gentle melody that gives me goosebumps to hear it.
It seems to be a universal feeling, too. "Silent Night" is the only one of our fourteen that has been declared a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. On Christmas Eve during World War I, British, French, and German soldiers came out of their foxholes and trenches and sang this song together, each in their own language. That's partially because this was the hymn that everyone knew, but I like to think that even if each of them knew all fourteen, this was the hymn they would have chosen.
And why would they have chosen this one? Simply put, the theme of the hymn is peace. The word itself only appears twice ("sleep in heavenly peace"), but peace echoes in every verse. The night is silent and holy, the mother and child are tender and mild, and the love of the newborn is pure. Many of the hymns we've heard about earlier highlight the joy that came at this night, and there's joy here, but it's quiet and restrained. We feel love more than celebration.
It's the love we sing about in the third verse that touches me most about this hymn. The child is described as, well, listen:
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.
I had never held a newborn in my arms until my daughter was born. She was good, and she was pure, but I don't know that I could have described her as beaming love's pure light. She was indifferent, she was upset, she was tired, but beatific she was not. Not so with the infant Jesus. I don't know that this is strict doctrine, but He is described as being perfectly calm and exuding the pure love of God. Even in that tiny manger, the magnitude of who He was and His mission here on earth was clear. The animals knew, Mary and Joseph knew, and the shepherds no doubt knew once they arrived on the scene.
Not only could they feel His pure love, but they knew that His birth marked the dawn of redeeming grace. They may not have known that from just seeing the baby, but the angels surely sang it to them. We've sung about this earlier: through Him, God and sinners are reconciled. Mankind was fallen, and His birth was the beginning of a new age in which we could return from that state into something purer.
I think what's most touching about this is the intimacy we feel. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are there, and the shepherds may be there, but that's all. It's quite possibly the single most important event in human history thus far, and only a handful of people are there to witness it and feel the outpouring of love from the Father and His Son. And when we sing this hymn, we get to listen in, even if just for a moment. We get to feel love's pure light. It almost feels like I'm intruding on something private when I hear the hymn, but then, I imagine that someone so possessed of that holy love would be happy to welcome me in.
Christ, the Savior, is born.
Previously in this series
#3 The First Noel
#4 Away in a Manger
#5 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#6 Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
#7 Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains
#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks