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  • Writer's picturePastor Brett

Silent Night, Holy Night

From “Four Beloved Christmas Carols and the True Stories Behind Them,” a article by Amy Green, Dec. 17, 2019:

“The most recorded carol of all time had humble origins: it was written in a tiny village in Austria by Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, churchmen who wanted a simple song to perform for Christmas, since the church’s organ was not working. It was accompanied by the guitar.

“Perhaps the most famous place the carol has been sung was the trenches of WWI. In December 1914, hostilities had died down between battles, as tense English, French, and German soldiers waited for the next bout of gunfire.

“But on Christmas Eve, what they got instead was an unexpected ceasefire. In certain places along the line, enemy soldiers ventured into no-man’s land to play games, exchange gifts, and celebrate together as best they could, knowing that in a few days they would resume fighting.

From “The Story Behind Silent Night,” by Ryan Reeves, 2016.

“The lyrics to Silent Night were written by Josef Mohr, a man whose name was unloved in his hometown of Salzburg. Mohr was one of three illegitimate sons to Anna Schoiberin, while his father, Franz, was a mercenary soldier who eventually abandoned the family. Josef’s godfather was the town executioner.

“Due to his mother’s poverty, the curate of the local Catholic cathedral took Josef in as a foster child. Josef had a proclivity toward music, which was encouraged by the church, and he eventually decided himself to pursue the priesthood. He was ordained August 21, 1815, and was sent to Oberndorf, just north of Salzburg. He there met Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolteacher, organist at Old Saint Nicholas Church.

“Gruber came from equally humble origins, and himself took comfort in his music. The friendship of the two is what led to the creation of Silent Night.

“The original arrangement was a bit faster than the reflective version of the song we know today. Silent Night is perhaps the most famous Christmas carol in history. It has been translated into most languages, and the Bing Crosby version has sold more than 10 million copies.”

1. The setting: an Empire-wide event set the stage for a world-wide event. (1-5)

The word translated as EMPIRE in verse one is oikoumene, which is translated elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel as “world,” in reference to the world as a place and to the people of the world. What’s implied is Luke’s view that the entire world was turned upside down by the Roman emperor’s insistence that his subjects be numbered. This was a prelude to a new round of taxes all over the empire and a military draft in places other than Judea, so it was probably an unpopular thing as well as a nuisance. Our English word “ecumenical” is derived from this Greek word.

In chapter one, Luke dated Zechariah’s visitation by the Judean king. In chapter two he dated Jesus’ birth by the Roman emperor and the Syrian governor. The archaeological evidence for Luke’s date is becoming clearer. We won’t debate the particulars in this forum. Instead, we understand Matthew and Luke were fixing the date of Jesus’ birth in the minds of their readers by referring to political figures known to them. This was a customary way of dating their writings and making them historical. In the absence of a commonly held dating system, you couldn’t do better than this.

Using our dating system (which came into use centuries after Jesus’ birth), we note that Augustus Caesar reigned from 31 BC to 14 AD. It was a golden age for the Roman empire.

Here’s where Jesus’ family enters the world-wide narrative: JOSEPH WAS A DESCENDENT OF KING DAVID (v. 4). Though Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, it is important to note the fact as it strengthens Jesus’ connection to the House of David, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah.

David’s descendants had to register in the small village of Bethlehem. As 1 Samuel 17:12, 58; 20:6 call Bethlehem “David’s hometown.”

2. The understated record of the Savior’s birth. (6-7)

Verse six supplies this detail, calling Jesus HER FIRSTBORN SON. While this implies that Mary would have other children, that’s not the important thing. The more important point is found in the Old Testament preeminence of first things. Luke included this detail to emphasize the preeminent place of Jesus in the plan of God.

In Numbers 3:31-33 God claimed all the firstborn sons of Israel as His own. The Levites, the tribe serving as worship leaders, would be devoted to God as substitutes for the firstborn sons. This was an extension of God’s claim to the firstfruits of the harvest and the firstborn of all the flocks. In total, this is a sign of the sacredness, the holiness of God.

Mary’s care for the infant Jesus is summed up in verse seven; He was WRAPPED SNUGLY IN STRIPS OF CLOTH. This implies a couple things:

One, that Jesus was well cared-for. Wrapping the limbs with strips of cloth was customary care for newborns.

Two, that Mary had to do this herself implies a lonely birth. She had no midwife or anyone else to wrap the baby’s limbs for her.

Luke mentions three times Jesus was laid in a manger (2:7, 12, 16). This is a point he clearly wants to make. What is his point? It is the incredible contrast between the glory of heaven and the poverty of Jesus’ birth. God became man in the lowest circumstance thinkable.

The word normally translated as INN (it is renders LODGING in the NLT) can refer to guesthouse or any form of accommodation, including a walled area, like a campground. As you can guess, there were a lot of people who were descended from David, many more than the small village could provide housing.

The language allows for the possibility that Joseph and Mary were late. They may have planned on staying in a certain place but were late in arriving and their place had been given to another. After all, this may’ve been Joseph’s first time travelling with a pregnant woman (verse five) and he could’ve easily underestimated the travel time, taking stops more frequently and longer than if he'd traveled alone.

The world scarcely noticed the birth of God’s Son.

It is easy to feel dwarfed by national and international events, to feel as if an individual can’t have much impact. Then we return to this account of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel and we are reminded of two things. The world at that time revolved around the Roman emperor. When he commanded a census, the lives of ordinary people were turned upside down to accomplish his will.

In the midst of that, in an overlooked part of Rome’s vast empire, a baby was born. His family were important to the empire only as a meager source of revenue. If God had not sent angelic messengers to announce His birth, it’s likely not another human being would have been present to witness the event.

History often happens in forgotten corners of the world, involving people who live outside the attention of the rest of the world. God Himself came to Earth as one of us. That should have blown the minds of everyone living at that time, but they just didn’t know.

Part of Luke’s lesson in this Birth narrative is, “Don’t despise the little things.” Don’t let that feeling of smallness impede your service to Christ. Focus on the greatness and power of God instead of your smallness and weakness. Let Him empower your words and deeds. Then all your works, great and small, will have eternal consequence.

RESOURCES:, retrieved on 12 December 2022., retrieved on 12 December 2022.

Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, The Gospel of Luke, 2006, Allison A. Trites

The Bible Knowledge Key Word Study, The Gospels, Luke, 2002, Darrell L. Bock

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