The story of Silent Night and the relevance of church today

Guest writer

Advent wreathThose carollers at your door and that trip to sing carols at your church have something in common – singing together inspires and unites us. It is good for us, individually and collectively. It connects us with a deeper, more consistently spiritual sense of life.

Stacy Horn discovered this one Christmas when she was suffering from anxiety and desperately looking for a way to stop the destructive behaviours she was engaged in, including binge drinking and unhealthy relationships. She remembered how it felt when singing in her school choir -- such a happy, innocent and wholesome memory. It prompted her to start looking for a choir to join. After a search, she finally found her choir home in a church. For Horn, singing sacred music brought her in contact with a new way of seeing herself, and with people who saw Christianity as relevant to their lives. This fresh  spiritual perspective grounded her and helped move her away from a damaging lifestyle and the anxiety that had accompanied it.

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As Horn discovered, singing together brings out a sense of spiritual harmony that is innate to all of us. Through such music we can begin to see qualities that we might have thought were lost, such as peace, innocence and joy. Singing sacred music brings our gentler nature to the surface and enables us to tune in to our individual and collective connection to the divine. It unifies us.

I experienced this recently while attending an Advent service at Christ Church Cathedral, in Victoria. The church was completely full, and there was a wonderful sense of unity -- a community coming together -- as we sang. People from all walks of life and different cultures had gathered to recognize the coming of the Christ. Clearly, the suggestion that Christianity is irrelevant in today’s modern, fast-paced world had no influence on the quietly expectant crowd as they waited for the service to commence. The meaning of the service, with its message of hope, change and expectancy is relevant in every age. It awakens us to a better, higher model of man as God’s beloved child and shows us our innate spiritual nature that we sometimes lose sight of, not only for ourselves but also for others.

In contrast to the true meaning of the Advent, the incessant, insistent noise of Santa Claus hype with its materialistic, commercial view of this religious festival tends to drown out the quiet, but powerful influence that the message of Christ brings. That consistent, ever present and tangibly relevant message to every age is evident in Jesus’ words, “ Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  

After the service, I turned to the Bible to again read the story of the nativity, beginning with the Advent story (Luke 1). It had me rethinking. One element I noticed this time was how inclusive the event was. In this age of individualism, materialism, rifts and clashes of religions, cultures and human opinions, the healing and unifying message of Christmas speaks to all these ills of society. Actually, whether we realize it or not, we are all searching for that spiritual connection that brings healing and wholeness, both individually and collectively. And, like Horn, countless people throughout time have found it in coming together to worship God in prayer and song.

It is a timeless activity. Many hymns and carols go back hundreds of years. Some have transforming stories behind them. The story behind ‘Silent Night’ is a perfect example.

This poem became a carol on December 23, 1818 in Austria. The little church of St. Nicholas lay in a village near Salzburg. The congregation was facing Christmas without an organ as it had broken down due to lack of funds for repairs. Since the organ was an integral part of their church life, especially for the Christmas service, the community felt its loss deeply.

That evening, a band of travelling actors was scheduled at the church, but because of the broken organ they performed in a local home. Their play was the story of the Nativity. After the performance, the pastor, Josef Mohr, went for a walk. As he looked down on the Christmas card scene of his village, so still and beautiful, he felt both the meaning of the Christmas story and a deep spiritual love for his community.

This love for both the church and the people in the town, reminded him of a poem he had written some years earlier. He hurried to the church’s organist and asked whether he could compose music for it. The resulting composition was written for guitar and shared with the congregation. Suddenly, it did not matter to them that the organ was broken – the ideas in the poem and the singing of it together were what mattered -- and it united them.

This hymn, Silent Nighttranslated into over 100 languages and sung in communities around the world, remains one of the most beloved carols ever. It was sung in the trenches of the First World War on Christmas Day, by both sides, inspiring the soldiers to come out of their trenches to play soccer together, and for that moment, war was vanquished in a sense of spiritual unity. That well documented event should be a hint to us of the healing, comforting  power of the Christ, and its potential for resolving our human problems and crises.

The beauty and inspiration of the story of the nativity speaks to our spiritual centre, telling us that existence is more than the sum total of our individual human activities and problems. It tells of a divine Love that is available to all mankind, through all eternity and in all ways. When we voice it together in unison and harmony, it can’t help but bring individual and community healing. This makes church relevant to our lives today, just as it always has.

May you have a peaceful and blessed Christmas

Anna Bowness-Park is a Christian Science practitioner, who writes frequently on the relationship between consciousness and health, and how prayer can play a role. You can follow her blog at 

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