Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Missing Stanzas of Silent Night

The song Silent Night is one of the most beloved carols of Christmas. For decades I closed my Christmas Eve services with the congregation lighting individual candles and singing this lovely hymn.

The lyrics of "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" were written by Joseph Mohr in 1816 in Austria. It was set to music by his friend and organist Franz Xaver Gruber. The song was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf near Salzburg, where Mohr was the pastor. It was played on a guitar because the church’s organ had been damaged by flooding. Most hymnals include only three or four stanzas:

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.

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!

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.

Silent night! Holy night!
wondrous star, lend thy light;
with the angels let us sing
alleluias to our King;
Christ, the Savior, is born!
Christ, the Savior, is born!

These wonderful words set to beautiful music have graced Christmas Eve services for two hundred years. But there is more! These lyrics are only part of the original song. There were originally three more stanzas written by Mohr. The extra three stanzas add important elements to the message. Here are the missing stanzas. They are translated from the original German by Bettina Klein of the Silent Night Museum of Salzburg. © 1998

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Brought the world gracious light
Down from heaven's golden height
Comes to us the glorious sight:
Jesus, as one of mankind
Jesus, as one of mankind.      

Silent Night! Holy Night!
By his love, by his might
God our Father us has graced
As a brother gently embraced
Jesus, all nations on earth
Jesus, all nations on earth.

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Long ago, minding our plight
God the world from misery freed
In the dark age of our fathers decreed:
All the world is redeemed
All the world is redeemed.

The first of these stanzas focusses on the humanity of Jesus “as one of mankind” as a balance to the “Son of God, Love’s Pure Light.” The next stanza states that Christ came for “all nations on earth.” Mohr wrote the song at a time of intense nationalism, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He was looking forward to earthly peace and international cooperation. When he wrote that “God the world from misery freed,” he was undoubtedly thinking in historical and well as spiritual terms.

In addition to his hopes for worldly peace, this verse presents Mohr’s theological universalism. In contrast to the parochialism of his church at the time, which insisted that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church, Mohr declared that in Christ “All the world is redeemed.”

When we sing this great hymn this Christmas, let us remember that it is more than a lullaby celebrating the “round yon virgin mother and child.” It is an expression of an inclusive faith that works for “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” (and women.) The missing stanzas and their message are much needed in our nation and our world today.

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