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A Christmas Poem –by Father Phil Bloom
You may have read about a group of pastors in Boise, Idaho, who gave an unusual pre-Christmas gift. They collected $10,000 and used it to pay for parking tickets. Before Christmas they set up a table outside the Boise City Hall and told people to bring their unpaid tickets.
As you might imagine, it was a college student who had the biggest number – 84! A total of $555 which they pastors covered. A woman brought in fourteen citations and hesitatingly asked one of the pastors if they could pay half. He responded, “No, we are going to pay them all, in full – because God’s grace is amazing.”
Now, I am not telling you this so that you will bring me your unpaid traffic fines. Still, it is a pretty good parable about God’s grace – how his love is undeserved and is ours for the asking. I thought about this when I was hearing confessions before Christmas: How beautiful is God’s love and forgiveness. Really, that is what we celebrate on Christmas. God became man to reveal to us the depths of his love.
I would like to tell you about a man who received a beautiful gift from God – and who wound up sharing it with the entire world. His beginnings were unpromising, to say the least. His father abandoned him, before he was born, and his mother was forced to eke out a meager living by knitting sweaters, caps and socks. With these earnings she sent young Joseph to school.
Feeling a call to the priesthood, he entered the seminary and in 1815 became a priest of the diocese of Salzburg, Austria. The bishop assigned Fr. Mohr to a mountain parish. One quiet evening the young priest sat down and composed a brief poem. He kept the verses to himself for two years. Then, shortly before Christmas, he showed it to a friend named Franz Guber. Franz provided a melody. You have no doubt heard of the poem. Its opening words are: Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! Silent Night! Holy Night!
At the Midnight Mass in 1818, Fr. Mohr’s small parish heard the hymn for the first time. The congregation loved it and each Christmas they looked forward to singing the carol which their pastor had composed. About fifteen years later, some traveling troubadours heard the hymn at a Christmas Mass. They picked it up and performed it at a concert in Leipzig. It spread quickly and in 1839, was sung for the first time in America. Soon it was translated into English, Spanish and many other languages. Fr. Joseph Mohr’s poem became the most popular Christmas hymn of all times.
Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright…
Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Fr. Joseph Mohr lived another thirty years after writing his poem. In spite of the hymn’s popularity, the composer died penniless. He had spent his earnings as a parish priest to care for the elderly. Fr. Mohr was buried in the churchyard of Wagrain where he had served as pastor for ten years.
If you consider the number of times Silent Night has been printed and recorded, the royalties would amount to millions, perhaps billions, of dollars. Yet, for his poem, Joseph Mohr gained neither money nor fame. It was not until after his death that the world recognized its author. Fr. Mohr had received his poem as gift – it had come to him in an evening of quiet inspiration. What he received, he gave as a gift, first to his parishioners, then to children and adults throughout the world.
The story of the hymn “Silent Night” is appropriate for Christmas. The true greatness of Jesus was not understood from the beginning. He came among with the modesty befitting a truly great gift.
Before we can appreciate the gift of the Christ Child, we need to ask ourselves what any gift means. It is surely a great joy to receive a present and an ever greater joy to be able to give one. It takes a certain childlike wonder to really get the point. A man who had that sense was G.K. Chesterton. He said:
Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?
Life itself is obviously a very great gift. None of us created our own self or thought up our own existence. Everything we enjoy depends on the initial gift of life.
Yet there is an even greater gift. That is what we celebrate tonight. We experience life as a combination of longings and limitations. We each have a hidden self which we wish to reveal to someone who can really understand and embrace us. That someone does exist. We celebrate his birth today.
A young man, who never knew his own father, experienced that embrace. On a lonely night he wrote a beautiful poem about that experience. We normally sing only three stanzas of Joseph Mohr’s hymn. The original poem had six stanzas. I would like to conclude with one we usually do not hear:
Silent night! Holy night!
God’s Son laughs, O how bright.
Love from your holy lips shines clear,
As the dawn of salvation draws near,
Jesus, Lord, with your birth!
Jesus, Lord, with your birth!
© copyright 2004 Father Phil Bloom. all rights reserved. Used with kind permission. Visit Fr. Bloom’s website: http://www.geocities.com/seapadre_1999/
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