This year we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. On the Western Front it was the simple carol, Silent Night, which broke-down the barrier and led to the soldiers gathering together in No-Man’s land to think about Christmas, and offer each other the hand of friendship in the midst of a pointless war they didn’t want to fight.
It’s Christmas Eve in Australia, and the music of the same carol fills the air of the clear, warm night, with the Southern Cross hanging low on the horizon. For almost 200-years Christians, gathered together in great cathedrals and small village churches, have sung this particular carol – ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’. We know it as ‘Silent Night’. Have you ever wondered who wrote this beloved song, and from whence it came? To trace its history we go to the Austrian village of Oberndorf in the southern province of Salzburg. Inside the Silent Night Chapel the story of the carol is told in two stain-glass windows. The first portrait is of Father Mohr, the village priest who wrote the words to Silent Night; the second is of his friend, Franz Gruber, the teacher and choir master, who composed the music. The exact truth of its composition remains a romantic musical conundrum – fact and fiction have become so entwined, the detail has been lost in the swirling mists of time. What we do know is the impact of this simple tune, and the magical story it tells. It seems we never tire of hearing the account of the birth of the boy child in the manager, the shepherds abiding in the field, the angels, and star which led wise men from the East to the stable in Bethlehem.
Father Mohr, an assistant parish priest, wrote the words to Silent Night in 1816. Two years later – for what reason we’re not sure he asked his friend, Franz Gruber, to compose a simple melody which could be played on a guitar. As the two men, backed by the choir, stood in front of the main altar in St. Nicholas’ Church, nestled in a valley of the Alps, and sang for the first time, “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!”, they could not, in their wildest imaginings, have envisaged the impact their simple composition would have on the world.
Music is the food love – the universal language of mankind. A familiar melody, ahead of any other stimuli, take us instantly to a time and a place. It touches our hearts, and makes our spirits soar.
As the first Christmas of the Great War approached – they told the soldiers the hostilities would be over by Christmas Pope Benedict XV begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He pleaded: “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang’. His attempt was officially rebuffed.
While the Pope’s words may have fallen on fallow ground, the power of Father Mohr’s words, and Franz Gruber’s music, caused a World War I battle to temporarily cease, as British and German soldiers sang of “heavenly peace” on Christmas Eve; they ventured, tentatively, into no-man’s land to exchange gifts, to shake hands, play football, and to briefly share their hopes and aspirations for peace following war.
During World War II, fighting was suspended on many fronts while soldiers, around the globe, turned to their radios on Christmas Eve, to hear the international opera star, Ernestine Schumann-Heink sing “Stille Nacht”. Mme. Schumann-Heink was a mother, with one son fighting for the Axis, and another son fighting for the Allies. Her rendition of this inspired carol had the power to bring a few moments of peace to a troubled world.
Whether it be our soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan; our homeless on the streets of Melbourne; or our troubled brothers and sisters living in a hostel in St Kilda, a simple rendition of this beautiful carol – Silent Night can help bring joy to even the most difficult of circumstances, and serve as the catalyst which brings us together to celebrate Christmas, and the birth of the child, which is an expression hope. Christmas marks the birth of a special child – the beginning of a special hope, and it’s this special hope which we’ve celebrated for some 2000-years. But even then when hope was born, the forces of repression were gathering. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: ‘Rise, take the child, and his mother, and escape to Egypt. Stay there’, said the Angel, ‘until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child in order to murder him’.
We, in Australia, in celebrating the birth of Jesus, are celebrating the birth of hope – the hope and expectation of a world of peace in which no nation lies in captivity, and where every man, woman, and child can find fulfilment, and contentment of heart.
So, when the Herods of this world send out their squads to do their bidding, and once again families are forced to gather up what little they have, and look to us for hope, let us remember the birth of the boy child who is called The Prince of Peace.
A Happy Christmas to you all.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30 with Edwin Cowlishaw.