Two Hundred Silent Nights

Two hundred years ago, an associate pastor met his friend the church organist after their Christmas Eve services had ended, right outside by the Nativity scene, where the pastor played his guitar and the organist joined him in singing a duet the two of them had written especially for the occasion. So their song “Silent Night” is now celebrating its bicentennial. By most accounts, it is the best-known Christmas carol on earth. This year, more than two billion people sing it in roughly 300 language and dialects. It is highlight of our own Lessons and Carols service each year; it’s the song we sing once the overhead lights go down and our candles flicker in the dark. “All is calm,” we intone, “all is bright.” In that instant, we believe all is.

Together we are singing a lullaby to Jesus at his birth, a “holy infant, so tender and mild” held in his mother’s arms. We cannot deny the appeal of Madonna and Child this holiday, the reverence we all feel for that amazing moment of birth. The junior pastor who authored “Silent Night”, Joseph Mohr, originally penned the lyrics at a famous pilgrimage site in Austria, a Basilica dedicated to Mary. He was recent graduate from seminary where he might never have been admitted. Mohr was born out of wedlock to a poor mother and a soldier who deserted his military post. He was born in what were then considered shameful circumstances; only a special dispensation granted him permission to prepare for the priesthood. But he needed that melody composed by a friend to sing his tribute to “love’s pure light” to the public.

Most of Mohr’s ministry was to the marginalized of his time. His mountainous region had suffered horribly in the Napoleonic wars and afterwards been subjected to fire and famine alike. As a young priest, he served small faith communities on the verge of despair, often in menial roles at remote outposts. He tried to instill hope in the people and had modest success in that, much to the annoyance of his church superiors. One senior priest complained that Mohr had a penchant for singing “uplifting songs”, which somehow seemed to offend his pious sensibilities.

Such critiques might help to explain why Mohr sang with his friend Franz Gruber after the Christmas Eve service, and not during it. As one music critic notes, “the song… makes it possible to hope for and believe in a better life here on earth again”, which is clearly a scandalous proposition in some quarters. Perhaps these are even quarters close to you, around where you live now.

When Mohr died after honorable clerical service that included important social advocacy for the children around the Alps – he built them schools, and established scholarships fund for those born to unwed mothers – the whole of his estate consisted of a worn guitar. Indeed, it was his one and only guitar, the same one he used to play “Silent Night” with Gruber in 1818. Today it sits in a museum, a prized historic artifact.

The popularity of “Silent Night” is now a global phenomenon. “It’s a simple lullaby… said to express tenderness and a beautiful sense of melancholy,” one musicologist explains. “The song is neither liturgical nor stern; it is a love song to a newly born child. It is a song of peace, filled with spirituality, which crosses barriers.… It belongs to all… those in the world who have good intentions.” In 2011, UNECSO affirmed its contemplative melody as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, one that now holds “status as a world peace song” and has a distinct musical legacy.

While Mohr and Gruber’s was not included in a Salzburg songbook until nearly 50 years after its holiday premiere, it had already gained multinational acclaim. It appeared in a Boston score, for instance, as early as 1842. But in the international arena, it is best known as for featuring prominently in the Christmas Eve truce of 1914 along the Western Front. At that point, more than a million soldiers has been killed or wounded in World War I. For a 50 mile stretch near Flanders, though, the firing ceased as troops began to observe Christmas. They lit trees outside their trenches and started to sing carols including “Silent Night”, in a host of languages. They all committed the crime of fraternization while they harmonized. The brought a “heavenly peace”, briefly but believably, to earth that holiday season.

Sometimes in our Candlelight service, the carols themselves contain the greatest lessons. Silent Night has beautifully captured the enduring spirit of this holiday for centuries now: hope is insistent; it breaks in on our despair, wherever it weighs heaviest on the world or in our history. Christmas communicates this revolutionary proposition that a compassionate God is intimately concerned with our broken human condition and even labors within it.

Regarding the Nativity on a cold winter night, Mohr spied “the dawn of redeeming grace.” Redeeming grace! Treasure those words, and ponder them in your own hearts — what do they mean to you? What do they mean tonight? What will they mean tomorrow, or in days to come, or in the next year? Imagine — Love, newborn, come entirely to life.

Rooster and Phoenix

Celebrating the start of this Lunar New Year with close friends, I discovered something I had intuited for a while – that I was not actually born during the Year of the Dog, as countless take-out Chinese menus had assured me. Their global description of my zodiac sign never quite fit. Having a winter birthday put me on the cusp, and this January, as we welcomed the Year of the Rooster, I finally learned that I myself am a Rooster. I immediately assumed this was good fortune, realizing my Rooster identity at this precise time. I quickly found I was wrong.

According to Chinese astrology, the year that is yours bodes ill – Horses have a hard time in any Year of the Horse, Tigers in any Year of the Tiger, etc. I took the bad-luck news very much to heart, because a couple of women I loved dearly were sick. I sensed in my bones that this Rooster year would be bitter indeed. Some friends challenged my fatalism and encouraged me to stay upbeat, whatever that might mean when things are plainly not going well.


My aunt – who after training as Catholic spiritual director decided to get ordained as a Taoist priest – insisted that in Chinese mythology, “the rooster is also a phoenix. Don’t forget that!” she told me. The phoenix does inevitably rise, but only after everything has burned down to ash. Beginning in spring, my husband Ben and I had three successive deaths in our family in three months. These were special people with whom we spent our holidays: Memorial Day, Christmas and Easter, and New Year’s – that New Year we mark on our Gregorian calendar here in the West.

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Stand by This Faith, Rally, March

After Election Day, I continued to wear my ‘Love Trumps Hate’ button and also added a safety pin to my lapel for good measure. Beyond politics and personalities, I believe that certain principles generally hold true. On the eve of Thanksgiving, while I was riding an express train home on NYC transit wearing both button and pin, a man and his male friend got on at Penn Station. This man was well-dressed and a little older; he took the seat right next to mine on the subway, so our wretched encounter would be pointedly personal.

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Church Yoga

More than a decade ago, when the Scorpion was a far easier pose for me than it is today, I was certified as a yoga instructor. While I never achieved my fame and fortune as a yogini, let alone perfected those ultra-advanced postures, my ambition was rather a modest one. I wanted to end up in the same place I had begun: the church basement, that sacred ground beneath my yoga mat. Continue reading

Despite It All

Just recently, the conductor has once more begun calling my train stop by name. Each time I hear it echo, I feel a touch more relieved, a bit closer to home. When I hand him my green Metro-North Railroad ticket stamped SPN DVL, he peers at it closely, then booms “Spites!” as he punches two holes in rapid succession. “Spites” is railroad shorthand for Spuyten Duyvil. For several years, this New York station was known for having a Dutch name almost impossible to pronounce. Now it’s best known for being the worst accident site in regional commuter rail history. The train wreck took place right near the bend in the tracks where the Harlem River meets the Hudson – one year ago, this December.

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Still I Am a Four

Wherever there is a church staff away on retreat, there is probably also a packet of personality tests waiting to be taken: an Enneagram measure, a Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, a Kiersey Bates Personality Sorter, something of that ilk. Whether it be at campsite in the woods, a retreat house in the mountains, or a great house near the shore, staff members seem to enjoy taking these. They find themselves surprised by their individual results and pleased to have prompts for genial conversations about how different we are from one another.  People are usually encouraged to accept themselves on these retreats – and encouraged to accept others, as well, in the spirit of open embrace. Continue reading

High Holy Week

Down the street from us sits a quaint neighborhood pub in the Irish tradition, and by tradition, I don’t mean the pouring of green beer in March. Its name is a jumble of words from the Irish Gaelic that have been scrawled in Celtic script on a sign with paint faded by successive seasons. A fair number of Irish expats patronize the place, and the wait staff still have brogues thick enough to charm. The pub even hosts a resident theater company that will stage a Synge play in the back of the back room, against the backdrop of a velvet curtain. So it’s worth looking at the grainy chalkboard outside to see what offerings the pub has in store in addition to the stout. Each March, a coy listing goes up for the ‘High Holy Week’ that culminates in St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday which the pub rather valiantly tries to keep respectable. God love them for that. Continue reading