This year, Christmas 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of our most beloved Christmas Hymn, Silent Night. No, this carol did not fall out of the sky – tradition says it was created by a youngpriest named Joseph Mohr in Austria. The poem was 2 years old, but in 1818 Mohrhad his friend, organist Franz Xavier Gruber, wrote a guitar accompaniment -easy to sing, to evoke the beauty and serenity of Christmas. And boy, did theyknock it out of the park. Can you even imagine Christmas WITHOUT singing SilentNight? Silent Night is ALMOST as essential to Christmas eve as baby Jesus ….(ALMOST!!)
And nothing is cuter than small children singing SilentNight… and trying to make sense of the lyrics:
Honestly, sleeping in heavenly peas might have been amore comfortable option than where baby Jesus DID end up sleeping – swaddled upin strips of cloth, and laid to rest in a manger – a feeding trough foranimals, full of bits of half chewed straw and hay covered in cow drool.
But oneline that always sounded strange to me is: “Holy Infant, so tender and mild.”What a strange way to describe a baby. We know what Father Mohr MEANS by“tender and mild” –adorable and sweet. But “Tender and mild”?
This is especially strange because in the originalGerman, the line is better translated, “baby with the curly hair.” (you can seeit in the German first verse that is right there in the bulletin – LokigenHaar). It was an episcopal priest in New York City in the 1850s to translatethe song into English, who must have wanted something good to rhyme with“Child.” Tada… Tender and Mild! Whichhonestly makes Jesus sound like a delicious steak or a bread pudding.
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But….. perhaps “Holy Infant, so tender and mild” is notactually far from the truth…. Please bear with me, I promise that is not nearlyas weird as it sounds.
What we think of as the modern nativity scene – with awood stable, figurines of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, sheep, Magi, camels,angels, and the odd cow or goat, was supposedly invented by none other thananimal lover St. Francis himself. St. Francis, who they say wrote “Lord Make Mean Instrument of Your Peace,” pet blessings, and the guy Pope Francis got hisname from.
Tradition has it that St. Frances dragged his entirecongregation out to a cave outside of town, strew about some straw, gatheredsome farm animals and unsuspecting parishioners, and erected an altar in thecenter, and preached the first ever Christmas eve sermon. Later sources tell ushe did this to combat the rise of rampant materialism - that apparently washappening way back in 1223 - and to refocus the meaning of Christmas back onthe very real poverty of baby Jesus’ birth.
That hits a little bit close to home doesn’t it? Becauseit seems that some things never change. Since the day Jesus was born, it seems,we have misplaced his meaning, making the season about more and more presents rather than the real presence of Jesus in our lives… and our presence in the lives of the people we love. We bury the rough andrustic reality of the nativity under inflatable snow-globes and mountains ofglitter and wrapping paper.
And despite the snow globes and glitter, I bet that todaydidn’t feel very silent and holy, with not a moment of calm and peace to be found.I bet all of us in one way or another, is searching for what makes the stressof this season worthwhile. What in the world can a 200-year-old song – thoughvery beautiful – say to us in 2018?What is the point of getting dressed up in our best and stressing our familiesto visit a baby in a manger that was born 2000 years ago?
In 1223, instead of a wooden box full of straw, which isat the center of all of our modern nativity sets, St. Francis instead placedhis altar. The manger - altar. Altar – table. A table from which all arewelcome to gather, a table for which there will always be a place for you tosit and join in a feast of joy.
The host of this feast, the one seated at the head ofthis table, is Jesus. Jesus, who didn’t stay a baby forever, who grew up to bea teacher and a preacher, who fed the hungry and healed the sick…. Who dared totell the religious authorities to take their rules and stick it in a place I can’tsay at the 4 PM service. Jesus… who made the rule-makers so angry, that they punishedhim and tortured him and killed him. Jesus… who defeated death, the grave, andthe powers of darkness, who’s light shone so brightly that he could not staydead. Jesus, who lived, and is alive.
Jesus, who loves all people, the broken ones and theimperfect ones, the ones who aren’t completely done wrapping all theirpresents, who snapped at their spouse or their parents, who overcooked thepotatoes, and who worries about how they are going to pay their credit cardbill next month. Jesus feeds and sustains all of us, starting on the night hewas betrayed, when he ate his last meal with his disciples and friends whowould later betray, deny, and abandon him.
That night, facing his own death,Jesus raised a loaf of bread, blessed it, and said to these imperfect people,take this and eat it – it’s my body, and I am giving you everything I have. Andsince that night, each Sunday we remember, and we are fed, and we are given thestrength to love and be loved. Martin Luther supposedly said that our outreachedhands as we receive communion become the manger for Christ arriving for us andto us.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild. Sonof God, love’s pure light. Tonight, we celebrate that love – so tender andmild TOWARD US - being born into the world - the brightening dawn of redeeminggrace. And as we light the candle of the people next to us, we get to see howthe light grows, tiny flame by tiny flame, until the whole world gets to seethat love’s pure light, today and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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