“He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4-5)
The carol “Silent Night” is 200 years old this Christmas although the lyrics are probably a couple years older than that. They were written by Josef Mohr, assistant priest at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf Austria. He wrote it after contemplating the birth of Jesus to Mary – a relationship close to his heart because his mother raised him as a single parent. After he wrote the poem, he tucked it away with other writings and it might have never re-surfaced again, except for mice. In December of 1818, mice chewed through the bellows of the church organ making it unplayable. It meant there’d be no music at the Christmas Eve service that year. This troubled the priest because the Christmas Eve service was the highest celebration of the season... but what to do? But walking home one night, Josef Mohr remembered the poem he’d written a few years earlier and wondered if it could be set to music for a stringed instrument. He found the poem and took it to the church organist, Franz Gruber, who came up with a simple tune in just a few hours. The very next night, Gruber played and sang the song at the Christmas Eve service using his guitar.
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.
The song was first titled: “Song from Heaven.” It remained on the organ console until the new year, when the organ builder, Karl Mauracher arrived to repair it. Once the bellows was repaired, the first piece of music he played on it was “Song from Heaven” (Silent Night). Mauracher was so captivated by it that he asked if he could take the music with him. He included it in his own church’s repertoire the very next Christmas. He also introduced it to two different families of singers (Von Trapp types abound) and they began to sing it throughout the area and its popularity spread. Eventually it was heard by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas eve! In 1871, the song was translated into English and published here in America. It continues to be a very popular Christmas carol 200 years later!
But what about it makes this carol so popular? Certainly, one answer is that this carol, perhaps better than any other, speaks to humanity’s collective desire for peace. We all yearn for peace ‒ in our lives, in our communities and in our world... yet peace is such an allusive thing. There is precious little peace in our world. It alludes us despite our deep desires for it. And even when we manage to find peace for a time, it isn’t long before it’s up and gone once more. So, we harbor a collective desire for true and lasting peace – a peace that only God can possibly grant.
And Christmas seems to be one time in the year when we allow our yearning for peace to surface and be expressed. Our desire for peace is expressed in the Christmas cards we send to friends and family – “Peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” Peace is expressed in many of the carols we sing this time of year ‒ “Silent Night,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” “Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing,” “O Holy Night.” So great is our yearning for peace that marketers have capitalized on it, and use peace to sell their products: Coca Cola is perhaps the most famous example of this: In 1990, they assembled an international group of people from around the world to sing on an Italian mountaintop : “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony...”. More recently, the Glade company aired a commercial of an old man whose neighbor hangs a string of lights for him while he’s out and she watches how it warms his heart. Peace on earth!
We are not alone in this yearning. In Isaiah’s time, peace was also very much in short supply. The time was 730 BC and the King of Assyria had pushed south and to capture much of Syria and was bearing down on Samaria, Israel and Judah. In response, the King of Samaria and the King of Damascus formed coalition and invited King Ahaz of Judah to join them. Initially he refused, thinking their defiance would incite the Assyrian army. But the other two Kings wouldn’t take no for an answer, so they laid siege to Jerusalem hoping to depose Ahaz and elect a more malleable King. So, King Ahaz was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place – either join the coalition and do battle against Assyria, or pay tribute to the King of the Assyria and hope he doesn’t invade. Neither option is savory and neither comes with any guarantees. Violent and uncertain times.
And amidst all this, the prophet Isaiah shares a vision he had concerning Judah and Jerusalem: he saw a vison of the mountain of the Lord being established as the highest of all mountains and all nations streaming to this mountain. All nations would come to the house of the God of Jacob and learn God’s ways:
“He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for the many peoples.” They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
So Isaiah foresees a day when God will arbitrate the grievances and disputes of nations and bring peace between them. Nations will accept God’s judgements and disarmament will occur as a result. There will be no need for weapons of war anymore because greed, retribution, and fear would be abolished. How shall God do all this? Isaiah 9 gives us details of God’s plan:
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace...”
A messianic figure would come and establish the kingdom for God... and all nations would then know true and lasting peace. Now we know that this messianic figure is none other than Jesus Christ... the one whose birth we celebrate this very month. Christ was born into our midst 2000 years ago and he has taught us well about the things that make for peace. He brought peace to those ravaged by disease and plagued with sickness. He brought peace to the storm-tossed boat of the disciples, showing his power over wind and wave. He even overcame life’s greatest enemy – death itself and assured us with the promise of eternal life in him. So, he came and preached peace to those near and those far off. And now we await his final coming when God’s Kingdom will be established, and peace will reign forever...
But what of peace in the meantime? Can peace reign today in-between Christ’s first coming and second coming? I am reminded of the concluding words of Saint Paul to the Colossians: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” The peace that Christ came to usher in can be perpetuated even now if we let it rule in our hearts... if we chose to be a reconciling community, forgiving one another, building bridges of understanding and extending the olive branch to our enemies. Yes, peace can gain a foothold and be established even now if we let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.
For this reason we take time in each worship service to shake hands and say to one another, “The peace of Christ be with you.” It’s more than a goodwill gesture, it declares that we are agents of reconciliation. We can establish peace. God knows in this time of deep division in our country, in this age of entrenched politics, in this season of unspeakable violence, terror and mass shooting, there is need more than ever for the peace of Christ.
One of the amazing stories surrounding the hymn Silent Night happened about 100 years ago December 25, 1914 on the Ypres battle field. German troops were on one side of “No Man’s Land,” and Allied troops on the other ‒ so close they were within earshot of each other. The Germans started singing a tune that was recognized by the allied troops and they responded... and this happened. . .
“Sleep in heavenly peace” isn’t just our hope for the Christ-child... it is the craving of every human being on the planet. We all desire the peace of Christ in this world and it can be ours far easier than we imagine... it begins when we extend our hand and say to one another “The peace of Christ be with you.”