It was Christmas Eve in the Austrian Alps. At the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg, Father Joseph Mohr prepared for the midnight service. He was distraught because the church organ was broken, ruining prospects for that evening’s carefully planned music. Without the organ it would indeed be a silent night. But Father Joseph was about to learn that scripture’s lesson - that all things work together for good for those who love God - was in fact true. Suddenly inspired, Father Joseph wrote a new song,
one that needed no organ. Hastily, he wrote the words, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…” Taking the text to his organist, Franz Gruber, he asked Franz to compose a simple tune.
That night, December 24, 1818, “Silent Night” was sung for the first time as a duet accompanied by a guitar at the aptly named Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, a model of which we have on the altar thanks to Roberta and Dick Driscoll. Were it not for a broken organ, we would not have “Silent Night.”
So as we continue our celebration and exploration of the song, we find beautiful symbolism in this third verse that we spoke in hushed tones earlier.
We’ve talked before in this series about light being symbolic of God and God’s presence. We talked last week about the incarnation and that God’s becoming flesh means not only that God is with us, but that in becoming one of us - one with us - God is saying that being human, being flesh, is an important thing, a blessed and holy thing. Verse three of the hymn then, after the opening “Silent night, holy night,” builds on that theme, completing the couplet with the line, “Son of God, love’s pure light.”
Scripture tells us that Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Man - fully human and fully divine; God in the flesh. Emmanuel, God with us. Scripture also reminds us that not only is God light, but that God is love. So in this verse, in that single line, all of that language, all of that imagery, is brought together succinctly - “Son of God, love’s pure light.” The image is made more real as we picture this baby in a manger - swaddled, innocent, vulnerable, helpless, yet the full revelation of the God of Creation, with “radiant beams” that come forth, streaming like the “glories” of the previous verse, from the “holy face.” If you try, you can see that image, Hallmark cards and Gerber baby food images aside.
We know the face of a newborn baby; we know the glow, the radiance of new life, of new birth.
Our reading today comes from John’s gospel, the fourth accounting of the good news. And each of the four tells the Jesus story differently; each account beginning in different ways. Mark introduces Jesus as an adult - no birth story provided. Whether those stories hadn’t circulated yet when Mark’s gospel was written, or whether Mark just thought them unimportant to the message he sought to convey, we don’t know. Matthew and Luke tell similar - but not identical - stories, each shaping their renderings to the audiences to which they wrote. John, on the other hand, goes full on symbolic. The last of the gospels written, the one we call “John” takes all that was written before, all of the historical accounts, and seeks to help us understand what they mean, what they point towards.
So when we consider these two together, the lyrics of “Silent Night” and the wording of this first chapter of John, we get an intermingling of words, phrases, images, and ideas that are a sign for us of what Christmas is all about.
Silent Night, holy night
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the word became flesh and lived among us…
Son of God, love’s pure light
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people
Radiant beams from Thy holy face…
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth
With the dawn of redeeming grace…
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth; Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Love and grace go hand-in-hand, and the Gospel of John begins with four mentions of that word, grace, and then doesn’t mention it again the entire rest of the book. As one commentator put it, “the entirety of the Gospel will show what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like, and feels like…For John, God in becoming flesh in Jesus has committed God’s self not only to revealing what God’s grace looks like, but that God wants to know it and feel it as well.”
Marcia McFee points out that, “God’s face in Jesus Christ has entered the world where it will be kissed by mother Mary, cradled in Joseph’s rough carpenter-hands, and washed after the feeding and burping. This is real human life, full humanity wrapped around love’s pure light that will shine in a way remembered ever since. It is a love that “redeems” us– that makes good on God’s promise to be with us always.
And she goes on, “The beauty of the hymn’s poetry in this verse speaks of light as a ‘dawning’ as well. Dawn rises up, dawn pierces the dark night, transforming it. From the earliest human ancestors, dawn has been a source of reassurance once again that life continues, that the forces of life have gifted us and we have arisen to see another day. In John’s opening lines, we hear of the presence of Christ from the beginning of time when ‘let there be light’ constituted the first dawn in our faith story. Coupled with the idea of Jesus as a human baby, this is the most poignant melding of [the] birth of the cosmos and birth from a womb. Divinity and humanity as one.”
This is enfleshed love, embodied love, the embodied love of God incarnate for all of creation. And we are created in the image of that same God; made in the likeness of this very same God. The seed of God’s love is planted within us so that we too, might be like and love like God. And so we ask again the question that was posed in our synopsis earlier: “what would the world be like if ‘love’s pure light’ was at the center” of all we do, of all we create. Made in the image of this one who is grace upon grace, how are we to nurture relationships that birth, multiply and radiate grace in the world? A grace-full existence. What would that look like?
It would look like the Jesus of the gospels. Not so much the Jesus who walks on water, although if you can do that that would be pretty cool, but the Jesus who cleanses and restores and loves none the less. It would look like the Jesus who feeds and forgives, who heals and gives hope. Even as John presents Jesus as this transcendent, almost other-worldly being, we see Jesus as well in a very earthy way in the fourth gospel. Jaime Clark Soles points out “that the stuff of earth is the stuff of God. Not a single thing that has been created was created apart from God. It all came from God, it all belongs to God, and it all testifies to and reveals God. In that way, creation itself is a sacrament, a means of grace.”
And Soles goes on to make this point further, saying, “For John, with the Incarnation, God becoming flesh, bread is no longer just bread (ch 6); flesh is no longer just flesh, water is no longer just water (chs 3, 4, 7, 19); vines, branches, sheep, shepherds -- all of them reveal the nature of God and identity of Christ. No wonder, then, that in healing the blind man (ch 9), Jesus takes the dirt and mixes it with saliva and puts it on the man's eyes. Surely Jesus could have skipped all the messy, dirty parts and just healed the guy, as he does elsewhere (ch 5). But the use of the earth and the spit should remind us of the creation as told by Genesis, where God creates the first person using [a clump of] earth.”
We have a lot of people in our community whom some would describe as “earthy,” don’t we. I read a book this week titled “Having Nothing, Possessing Everything,” written by Mike Mather, a UMC pastor in Indianapolis. The church he serves, much like ours, is situated in a community in which there is much need, economic decline, drugs, and violence. In a Bible study one week, they were studying Acts 2, where Peter is preaching from the prophet Joel, who relays God’s message that God will pour out God’s Spirit on ALL flesh. One of the students in the class, who also volunteered at their food pantry, asked, “if that’s the case, why do we treat people like that’s not true?” Mather asked her what she meant, and she said, “When people come to the food pantry, we ask [them] how poor they are, rather than how rich they are. Peter is saying all people have God’s Spirit poured into them.”
That realization caused the church to begin rethinking some of the ways they attempted to “love” their community. Rather than focusing on needs, that is, what was missing within the community, they began to explore what gifts were present. One day, a woman named Adele came to their pantry. Three generations of her family were living in her home and she worked part time as a cook. She told them she was a good cook, and they challenged her to “prove it.” When she asked what they meant, they invited her to prepare lunch one day for the custodian, the secretary, and the pastor. Mather describes the lunch she prepared as fabulous.
Shortly after that, the church secretary learned that some community leaders were planning to have a large meeting at a restaurant, and she urged them instead to have the meeting at the church and have Adele cook for them. They did, paying her for the meal. Over the next several months Adele catered more and more events in the neighborhood.
Then the Chamber of Commerce reached out to the church to have an all-day meeting in their building, along with use of the kitchen. The church that was fine, but that they preferred that the Chamber use their caterer, Adele.
They agreed. The church took twenty dollars (their only investment) and had a thousand business cards printed for Adele, which she made good use of by distributing them to the seventy business leaders who had gathered at the church that day. A year and half later, Adele opened her own Tex-Mex restaurant.
If they had asked Adele how poor she was, what she didn’t have, instead of what gifts she did possess, “everyone would have been poorer for it,” Mather writes. The story of Adele teaches us that if we ask different questions, we might discover a world of God-given gifts in other people that might never have become known otherwise. If we begin looking for peoples’ gifts rather than their needs, we discover love’s pure light that God has planted there, waiting to radiantly beam into the world. You see, you can’t build anything with what you don’t have.
When we practice real love, not the emotionally squishy love of Valentine’s poems and Harlequin Romances, but the actionable love of God in the world, we begin to see the face of God in all of those around us. When we come alongside the child who struggles with reading as a friend, rather than as a grownup who wants to “do good for the disadvantaged,” we can see love’s pure light sparkle like radiant beams in their eyes when, between stories, they tell you about their new puppy, their family nick-names for one another, or the joy they had in picking out a Christmas gift for their mom or dad.
Love and grace go hand-in-hand. It’s easy to make Christ’s love transactional. We can do our part and serve people in the food pantry or the free store, we can provide gas cards to people or pay utility bills for them through Helping Hands, and never see them for who they are; never see them as anything beyond being what we might consider a “needy” client of one of our programs - never see them as a child of God, with gifts as well as needs, with dreams as well as nightmares. In the light of pure love, love and grace go hand-in-hand.
This passage from John’s Gospel is as much about who God is, what God is about, and to what and whom God is committed as it is a declaration about the Word itself. The prophet Joel, remember, said that God’s Spirit was poured out on ALL flesh. The fourth evangelist understands that God’s promise to be with God’s people wherever they go has taken on an all new meaning in Jesus. The incarnation of God in Christ is deeply intimate and personal and assumes God’s commitment to and presence in all of God’s children. Moreover, in the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, now God not only goes where God’s people go, but is who they are. That is, God dwells with us and in us by taking on our form, our humanity. This “different” dwelling of God is God being where we are, and being who we are.
The presence of God in human form is the "dawn" of redeeming grace. God so desired to be one with us that God came to live, breathe, feel, teach, touch, and love. Made in the image of God, we are called to nurture relationships that birth, multiply and radiate grace and love’s pure light in the world. What a difference it would make in the world if we held “love’s pure light” at the center. Amen.