Peace on Earth — The 200th Anniversary of “Silent Night”

On Christmas Eve 1818, at Saint Nicholas parish church in Orbendorf (a village in the Austrian Empire), the carol “Silent Night” was first performed. The parish priest, Joseph Mohr, had composed the words the year before. River flooding had damaged the church organ, so Mohr asked Franz Xaver Gruber—an organist in a nearby village—to compose an accompaniment for guitar. And so, 200 years ago tonight, the Christmas Carol “Silent Night” was born.*

You probably know the words by heart:

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.

What Do You Mean by “Silent” Night?

Some—usually the overly-literal—like to take issue with such carols. “It’s overly sentimental,” you can imagine someone saying. “There’s no evidence in the bible that it was a ‘silent night,’” you can hear another chime in. The seminarian sets down his eggnog to smugly explain how the carol’s author diminishes the humanity of both Jesus and Mary by downplaying the physical pain and discomfort accompanying childbirth. “Some sort of gnostic heresy, I suspect,” he adds while lighting his pipe.

Such critics prove little more than their own undeveloped appreciation for poetry.

When everything is going wrong, and life is full of turmoil, what is it you ask for? “Can I just have some peace and quiet!?” That’s what Joseph Mohr’s carol is about. Peace—“sleep in heavenly peace”—and quiet—“silent night.”

Mohr depicts in poetic imagination what the angels declared in praise:

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!

“Peace on earth.” It seems to be the promise and the wish of everyone from presidents to pageant contestants—though no one can seem to deliver it. But that is what God delivered to us in the birth of King Jesus.

What kind of peace are you longing for right now?

Are you longing for wars to cease? There is Good News! Under the reign of King Jesus, Scripture says that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Perhaps you’d settle for peace in your home. Maybe it is your children, always fighting with you and one another. Perhaps it is a broken marriage or a rebellious child. There is Good News! Under the reign of King Jesus, Scripture says that he is in the business of breaking down the walls of hostility that separate people and bringing peace and reconciliation.

Perhaps it is physical, bodily peace you long for most. You feel the sting and pain of a broken body, sickness, old age. There is Good News! Under the reign of King Jesus, we see that the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear and the mute speak, the leper is cleansed, fevers are rebuked—for this king heals the sick.

Perhaps it is mental peace—your ongoing battle with anxiety, depression, mental illness. There is Good News! Under the reign of King Jesus, we have a Savior who said, “Now is my soul troubled,” and whose stress caused him to sweat drops of blood in anguish. He experienced a dark night of the soul so that he could walk through yours and promise you peace with him.

Or perhaps this year has brought you face-to-face with the misery of death. You’ve lost friends and loved ones. The pain of loss and grief is a restless ocean in your soul, and you want it to stop; you want peace. There is Good News! Under the reign of King Jesus, the dead are raised! The Scripture tells us that “if we have died with Christ, we will also live with him.”

Perhaps the year-end brings you financial stress, fear and anxiety over investments or simply where the next meal will come from. There is Good News! Under the reign of King Jesus, we have the promise of a heavenly Father who clothes the lilies and feeds the ravens and loves us more than both. In Christ, have been blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”—and Jesus invites us to store up treasures in heaven “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Perhaps you fear environmental disaster. There is Good News! Under the reign of King Jesus—who, while a life-threatening storm raged on the sea was in the front of the boat, “asleep in heavenly peace”—can calm the winds with a word. More than that, he is bringing a new heaven and a new earth.

Perhaps you fear demonic, spiritual oppression. There is Good News! Under the reign of King Jesus, he looks and demons and says, “Be silent!” God has disarmed these demonic foes and put them to open shame, triumphing over them in Christ.

He is Our Peace

Christmas—the birth of Christ, God incarnate—reminds us that Jesus lived a human life. He experienced the cursed brokenness of this world in every respect. He faced every one of these experiences I’ve mentioned—and every other circumstance that robs us of peace. This is Good News! Scripture says that because he became like us in every respect, he can sympathize with us in our weaknesses and knows how to help us in time of need.

But there is one way in which he is not like us—sin. He experienced all this peacelessness—all this turmoil, pain, chaos—without any sin. This means that where you and I respond with fear, worry, anger, doubt, cynicism, and faithlessness in ways that are unrighteous—Jesus responded with perfect obedience to God. Jesus succeeded where you and I have failed.

This is Good News! The cause of all that is wrong in our world—the reason the world is at war in a thousand different ways—is our rebellion against God. But God has shown us grace in sending Jesus to live for us and to die for us. The humility of Jesus that begins in his humble birth culminates in his crucifixion, where he hangs and dies under the curse of God.

He is cursed with our death so that we can be declared righteous by his life in his resurrection.

The path to peace and quiet is not through a new approach to clutter-free living, a new blend of essential oils, a new planner, a new workout, a new job, a new outfit, a new toy, a new family, a new church. The path to peace and quiet is through faith in our crucified and risen King, Jesus, and his redeeming grace.

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