“And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God.” Luke 2:13
Aren’t music and singing always a part of Christmas for us? Gathered around the piano as a family, we sang carols. Each had a favorite. “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” was my mother’s. For me it was “Oh, Holy Night,” especially sung in French to a Cathedral lit only by candles before the Midnight Mass. In my first pastorate of a parish with a predominantly German history, the carols were sung in that language: “Stille Nacht” and “Ihr Kinderlein kommet.” When I returned to the parish of my childhood as pastor, the Cathedral in Lafayette, I could still hear “Il est né le divin Enfant” and “Quelle est cette odeur agréable.” Is there any season more than Christmas for which a song or piece of music can conjure such sentiments of peace, quiet, and happiness?
The Word of God became flesh! “O, magnum mysterium”! O, what great mystery it is, that God would descend, empty Himself out in the words of another ancient hymn recorded by St. Paul (cf. Philippians 2:7), and become a little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes—for us, for you and for me, to live, to die, and to redeem. Spoken words are not enough to express so great a mystery. We must sing.
Many years ago, I read an account by a Jewish professor of an experience at Christmas towards the end of World War II (cf. Memory Fields by Shlomo Breznitz, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1993, pp. 77-81). The gentleman’s parents smuggled his sister and himself into a Catholic orphanage run by nuns in their native Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis had occupied that country, Catholic nuns gave them false identities and the children remained undetected, safely hidden, until just before the end of the war. What happened? The German commander came to visit the orphanage at Christmas bearing a gift for the children and asked them to sing. The young Jewish boy understood very well the menace and the threat to their concealment. All the orphans sang carols in Latin and their native Czech. At the end of the performance, the commander asked whether anyone could sing “Silent Night” in German. The Jewish boy was older and knew that in this region of Czechoslovakia German was not a language well-known except by the Jewish population. So, the boy thought it best not to volunteer. However, his younger sister, not realizing the peril, naively advanced toward the German officer. Her brother, not wanting her to be alone in this moment of revelation, joined his sister. In effect, singing a German song could mean a death warrant. For some four years they had remained undetected, until now, this Christmas night, the last of the war. But something mysterious happened. When the children had finished “Silent Night,” the commander beckoned them to come closer. With his sister the trembling boy approached, convinced of their inevitable fate. The German commander bent over and said quietly in German, “Don’t be scared, your mother and father will come back.” This Christmas was indeed to be a silent one. “Sleep in heavenly peace” silenced war, murder, hatred, and conflict.
Spoken words just do not express adequately the joy of what is happening here. Yet, words are all we have to express the truth and the joy of what we celebrate. Better yet if they are sung. If angels can break open the heavens to rejoice, cannot human beings respond in kind? Angels appear to poor shepherds and proclaim, “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). Cannot we do the same? Where are our voices in witness to the Christian message of great joy? Where indeed are the voices? Put to rest anger and resentment. Begone hatred and revenge. Banish the vulgar and flee the crude and tasteless fashions of the current world. How can we on so sacred a night not be resolved to put aside the idols of the age, the distractions from the Word of God made flesh? When will we learn the lesson? Why do we prefer chaos over order, war over peace? Have we not paused at the manger to hear the message? Stood in awe as the heavens opened to reveal angels?
And so, we break into song. The family gathers around the piano. Out of the darkness and silence of a great Cathedral, a melodious voice announces holiness and peace. The Christmas carolers bring some joy to the otherwise lonely. And even the commander of an occupying army is silenced, so sacred is the moment, so profound the mystery, so deep the joy, and so holy the night.
May God grant you and your families the grace to silence the troubles of this world that oppress you and to instill in your lives the peace of God’s Will and the quiet of His presence. Merry Christmas!