At this year's church family Christmas party, I retold the legend of Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr and the creation of their beautiful, simple, Christmas carol, Silent Night. Since most of what we've been told over the years is evidently legend, I felt free to create my own version. I enlisted Cannon Rogers, a teen guitarist in our church to help me. Here it is:
A New Song for Santa’s Church
Do you have a best friend? Someone you can count on to come through for you in a pinch? Well, Josef and Franz were best friends. They worked together and they visited together in each other’s homes and they sang together. I have some friends like that. We like to get together at each other’s houses and, of course, eat good stuff, but also to play our guitars and sing, sing, sing!
Church of St. Nicholas Oberndorf (razed in 1906)
Like I said, Josef and Franz worked together. Josef was the pastor and Franz was the choirmaster at the same church. And it was Santa’s church! At least I figure it must have been Santa’s church, because there was a beautiful sign right in front of the sanctuary that said “Church of St. Nicholas”. So you can understand that they really wanted the Christmas Eve service to be wonderful. I guess Josef and Franz would get to send Santa off on his big Christmas Eve journey with a beautiful program of glorious Christmas music sung by the big St. Nicholas Church choir and accompanied by that great big pipe organ they had.
I told you Franz was the choirmaster. That means that he not only directed the choir, like Mr. Kam does here at Trinity, but he also played that great big organ, almost as well as Ms. Shelly does here. And he had a wonderful program planned for that Christmas Eve. Then the trouble started!
Franz stopped by the church to practice at the organ for a while on Christmas Adam. Well, you’d expect that wouldn’t you? He wanted to be ready for Christmas Eve the very next night! And just when he was pumping away at the pedals of that organ --- in those days the organs had pedals connected to big bellows like an accordion to blow air through the pipes to make them play --- anyway, just when he was pumping away at the pedals of that organ, playing beautiful, complicated Christmas melodies, that organ made the rudest sound you’ve ever heard! “Pluttttztzzzz!!”
“Oh. no!” Franz muttered. And he frantically pumped the pedals, “Pluttttztzzzz!! Pluttttztzzzz!! Pluttttztzzzz!!”
He got down from the bench and bent to examine the pedals. Oh my. It was no use. The bellows on either pedal would not hold air, they were full of holes. The poor church mice, starving from the lack of crumbs -- their church didn’t have a Wednesday night supper like Trinity does and, except for a few communion crumbs, pickings were mighty slim for rodents at The Church of St Nicholas... the poor starving church mice had been eating at the leather bellows of the organ. They were a mess. There was no hope of repair and replacement was out the question on Christmas Eve. The organ repairman would have to come all the way from Salzberg, and 200 years ago, there was no email or telephone to summon him with.
Franz would have to conduct the Christmas Eve service without an organ. What could he do? This was definitely trouble. He’d better talk to his friend. So he headed out toward the parsonage where his friend Josef lived.
Well, meanwhile Josef had been visiting one of his church members, up on the mountain. Old Wilhelm, was a sheep herder, and had been ill, and Josef had gone to talk with him and hear his stories, and pray with him. He found the old man feeling much better and together they bundled up and walked out onto his back porch where they could look out over the snow covered valley in the moonlight. They could see the steeple of the Church of St. Nicholas in the valley below, pointing upward toward the steeple-like mountains - the Alps - and the star-studded heavens.
Wilhelm broke the almost magical silence of the scene, “I wonder if that winter night in Bethlehem might have been this silent? And felt this holy? It is so calm and bright. Just imagine that young mother and her tender baby, in a stable maybe like my stable there. What a heavenly peaceful scene.”
Josef looked out at the stars streaming their light from heaven. He thought of those shepherds, probably shaking and quaking at the sight of an angel host singing that a Savior is born.
“Wilhelm, he said, may I have some paper and a pencil, I want to write about what I am feeling.”
They walked back into the house, and while Wilhelm poured some warm tea, Josef sat at the table near the window and wrote quickly, scratching through a word here and there to scribble a better one. By the time he finished off a second cup of tea and a couple of Christmas shortbread cookies the ladies of the church had sent out to old Wilhelm, Josef had finished his little poem about that quiet evening when Jesus was born, and had started his way down the mountain thinking he might read it during the Christmas Eve service the next night.
He was thrilled when he saw Franz’s horse tied at his gate. He could see, through a window, a fire blazing in the fireplace. How nice to find his best friend there. They could talk about using his poem in the service. But Franz burst out the door...
“Josef! Josef! We’ve got trouble!” Franz told him about the mice, and bellows, and the rude noises. “What in the world will we do for music. The choir can sing a couple of carols without the organ but that will not do for a whole Christmas Eve service. What will the members think?” I guess he was wondering what Santa would think too.
All of a sudden, Josef’s eyes brightened. “Oh, Franz. What’s a little trouble. We’ll make this a Christmas Eve to remember -- even without an organ. You can lead the choir in a couple of carols. We’ll read the wonderful Christmas story right out of the Bible. We just need a good quiet song to welcome the Christ child and close things out. Grab the guitar over there and come with me to the window.” Josef wanted Franz to feel what he had felt when he’d been on Wilhelm’s porch.
“Look out there, Franz. Think of that wondrous night. Think of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Maybe it was cold and quiet like this. Maybe the stars were clear and bright like tonight. Now read my little poem and see if you can make a tune.”
Franz looked out at the village clothed in a blanket of snow, lit by a bright moon and streaming starlight, and read Josef’s simple little poem. And he began to pluck his guitar strings... [Cannon begins to play] and finally began to sing. [Cannon sings the first verse quietly in the background]
And that Christmas Eve, at the Church of St. Nicholas, with just their voices and a guitar, Josef and Franz led all the village folk, and, I wasn’t there, but I guess even Santa, in welcoming the Christ child. Will you help us sing it again?
[Everyone joins in]
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 dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
This version of the story: © 2014 Terrell Shaw