Below are some reflections on Luke chapter 2 in the light of the well known Christmas carol ‘Silent Night.’ We invite you to spend some quiet time meditating on the Christmas story told through this carol.
Listen to the first verse and follow along with the words:
Verse One “Silent Night” 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.
Luke 2:6–12 While [Mary and Joseph] were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
It was in Austria during the Advent season of 1816 that a young priest by the name of Joseph Mohr was walking through the winter depths. As he gazed out over the silent town in which he was a pastor, the inspiration came for the lyrics of what we now call ‘Silent Night.’
In the silence, he was inspired to write words which have been translated into more than 300 languages and into vast numbers of arrangements. It has been sung in churches, town squares, concert halls, and even on the battlefield.
In this carol, Joseph Mohr leads us into the account from Luke. The scene of shepherds living in the fields, their home, the silence and the star-studded night sky, keeping watch over the sheep to whom they have been entrusted. The silence. All is calm, all is bright with only the illumination of stars and moon. The only background sounds that of whispered breeze, crackling fire and the occasional call of ewe and lamb.
Ponder for a moment, imagine that scene. Joseph Mohr drew on the silence of his home town and on the account above in Luke to find inspiration for Silent Night. What of the silence in your own life? Stop for a moment and ponder those times when you have been in the silence, where the only sounds might be the distant call of a Boobook owl, the land breeze, or the rustle of unseen critters in the darkness. Take a moment to make some space, to pull aside the curtains of distractions that plague our lives and draw on those silent moments in your life.
It was into this space, this silence, that the unexpected exploded. Not with some kind of loud explosive pyrotechnic display. But into the silence rather a messenger of the Lord appeared before the shepherds, accompanied by light of overpowering brilliance that scared the daylights out of them. Literally, in the Greek, they feared with “mega” fear.
So the messenger said to them, “Do not be afraid.” I love that line… “Calm down people.” Can you imagine this scene?
But in the silence, surrounded by silence, nestled in silence, announced in silence come these words, “I am bringing good news of great joy for all the people… To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
In the silence the words of good news for all people. No exceptions here. Good news for all people.
Sit for a moment in silence and ponder this scene, these words of hope and time of inspiration.
Now listen to the second verse and follow along with the words:
Verse Two “Silent Night” Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia, Christ the Saviour is born! Christ the Saviour is born!
Luke 2:13–15 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in te highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
People talk about liminal places, thresholds or what the Celts call “thin places.” Those places, those moments are when reality seems less real, less tangible, transparent in some way. And in that thin place, perspectives often change, life takes on a different hue with often implications for the future.
Here are the shepherds in this threshold moment, now confronted not only with a messenger of the Lord, but also a huge gathering of a multitude of the heavenly host. I love that word “host,” it’s a quaint euphemism for “army.” Literally this huge army of heavenly warriors appeared, or perhaps became apparent, for a moment. But this was no militaristic scene of warriors about to be unleashed on the invading Roman armies. Listen to what they announce.
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill among people.” This is the very opposite of what would be expected of a military operation. Here the warriors come to bring a message of peace, of goodwill. Their imposing, perhaps frightening appearance underscores the message of peace and goodwill. That this baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger is a promise, a sign of something unimaginable. Peace, goodwill.
Are there armies that besiege you from time to time? Anxiety, frustration, fear, sorrow, doubt, uncertainty, distrust, impatience, busyness — to name a few. Take a moment to ponder.
In the silence, in those paddocks outside Bethlehem, the word of peace was announced and the fear of quaking shepherds quickly turned to expectation and hope and a desire to see this One on whom the message of peace and goodwill had been set.
Set aside a moment to sit silently and perhaps welcome this message of peace and goodwill.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God…”
Listen to verse three as you follow the words:
Verse Three “Silent Night” 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.
Luke 2:16–20 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The angels had left, the thin place closed over but not without its impact on the shepherds. “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Let us go and see… They had stepped over the threshold … the unexpected, the unanticipated now coming into focus.
What a strange contrast… An army of heavenly warriors announcing the birth of a baby along with peace and goodwill.
And so, they departed in haste… They saw a baby. Now shepherds would have been well acquainted with birth. But this birth brought with it something inexplicable. It touched the hearts and souls of these shepherds in such a way that they couldn’t stop talking about it, to the point that everyone they told was amazed.
In a manger, because there was no place for them, they came face to face with Immanuel, God with us. Face to face with grace. God’s gift of peace and goodwill to all of humanity.
God’s gift of grace comes to us as helpless, unadorned, naked, poor, unseen but with the message of peace and goodwill ringing in the background. With this image, the shepherds returned not despondent (“What is this, a baby born in abject poverty?”), but with rejoicing! They saw in the midst of this place of poverty and impossible odds the One who would bring the most amazing and life transforming change to all of humanity.
Perhaps you have experienced one of those inexplicable life transforming moments? When everything has been turned on its head? When wealth perhaps become poverty, security becomes a prison, ownership becomes an anchor, being right becomes tears, pride turns into humility? I’m sure you have you story, as I do mine.
Christ, the Saviour, Immanuel, God with us, a baby, God’s grace, face to face with humanity. God comes to us then, Jesus Lord at thy birth, bringing silence and peace to death, to sin, anxiety and fear, to our busyness, to anything that might overwhelm us. Turning everything upside down.
(Images from https://www.artofthepicturebook.com/silent-night)