Sermon for Carols by Candlelight 2014
Reverend Canon Charles Royden
Imagine Christmas Eve, 1818, in the picturesque village of Oberdorf, near Salzburg, in Austria. Father Joseph Mohr was the 26 year old priest. He discovered that the organ for the church’s was damaged - a mouse had eaten through one of the leather bellows of the organ. It would not play !
How would they celebrate Christmas Eve - Midnight Mass - it would not be the same without any music. What could be done? Joseph could play the guitar, but he realised that the Christmas hymns they all knew, would not sound their best on a guitar. He decided to write the words for a brand new Christmas carol.
As he sat down, he remembered a family he had visited recently. There, with the cold winter’s snow around them, he had blessed the mother and her newly-born child, and it had touched him to see how the mother protected her child from the winter’s cold. This was the picture in his mind as he began to think of the Birth of Jesus, and he started to write the carol that we now know as “Silent Night”.
With the words he had written, Father Joseph walked as quickly as he could through the snow to the nearby village of Arnsdorf to meet his friend, Franz Gruber, who was the village teacher and a musician. Joseph left the words with him and Franz Gruber started to create a tune for the words which so beautifully told the Gospel story. He composed a lullaby, and took it back to Father Joseph. They had little time left to practice it but, at the Midnight Christmas Mass in the Church of St Nicholas, Joseph Mohr played the guitar and sang tenor, and Franz Gruber sang bass.
Sadly Father Mohr died 30 years later in poverty during the winter of 1948, he had contracted pneumonia after a lengthy walk to visit a sick parishioner. Every year on Christmas eve a choir sings silent night at his graveside.
Go forward nearly a hundred years later to the First World War. France, Britain and Belgium opposed the invaders from the empires of Germany and Austro-Hungary. As the first Christmas of the War approached 100 years ago in 1914, each side had lost nearly a million men. The two sides lay in trenches that stretched about 500miles from Switzerland to the French
coastline on the North Sea. Soldiers in opposing trenches were only the width of a football pitch apart, with “No-Man’s Land” in-between.
On Christmas Eve, in the section where the British opposed the Germans, the British gathered holly, and the Germans set up small Christmas trees which they lit up. It was an unofficial “truce”. German soldiers started to sing the song of Father Joseph and Franz Gruber “Stille Nacht”, and the British joined in the carol in English: “Silent Night”.
And there you have this years Sainsburys advert. They have teamed up with the Royal British Legion to research what happened and they have diaries and records of the event. We don’t know for certain whether there was a foot ball match, there probably was. In the advert is shows the soldiers swapping chocolate and other gifts.
An English soldier later wrote:
“It was a beautiful, moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere, About 7 or 8 in the evening, there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and there were lights. And then they sang ‘Stille Nacht - Silent Night’. I shall never forget it as long as I live. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
On the antique road show they had an original copy of a communication from the Germans advising the English that on the 27th they would resume shooting
The term “All quiet on the Western Front” originates from the time of this unofficial truce.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the writer of ‘Sherlock Holmes’), in his history of 1914, wrote that the unofficial truce in the First World War was
“one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of war.”
And there you have it, the Sainsbury’s advert for this year - and it finishes with the actions of the soldiers and uses them to propose the phrase ‘Christmas is for sharing’
That is not a bad summary of what Christmas is all about. Christmas is a very special time, it reminds us of the greatest ever act of sharing, when God shared himself with us. When he gave himself to be born in human form, shared our humanity, shared our frailty.
We are touched by God in his gift of Jesus. And we are offered an opportunity like those soldiers in the midst of a chaotic and dysfunctional world to stop and do things differently, not just for a pause and then a resumption of normal hostilities. We are offered peace with God and a change of life for the rest of our lives.
This Christmas let each one of us take time to understand God’s great love and allow God to share our lives. God shared all of himself with us. This Christmas may each one of us be blessed as we seek to share all of our lives with him. Amen