The Best Loved Carol Of Them All
Today, I wish to tell you the story of the best loved Christmas carol of them all, weaving in its sublime message and meaning. It is a story which will introduce to us seven people: a village priest, a substitute organist, an organ repairman, the Bishop of Florida, a forgotten king, a depressed author, and a folk hero. So sit back and relax while I spin for you a wonderful tale…
It all began in the little village of Oberndorf in Austria on Christmas Eve, 1818. Father Joseph Mohr (person #1), the priest in the St. Nicholas Church, learned that the organ in the church was broken, and it would not play. The music plan for the Christmas Eve service depended on the organ for accompaniment. Father Mohr was distraught, and in his desperation, he fell upon the idea of writing a new song and using it instead of the music previously planned. Father Mohr sat down and in just a short while dashed off some words. He then gave the words to his friend Franz Gruber (person #2), a school teacher who was serving as a substitute organist in the St. Nicholas Church. He asked Gruber to compose a suitable tune for the words. It was done by late afternoon Christmas Eve. That night, in the service, Mohr sang the melody, and Gruber sang the bass part as Gruber plucked out the notes on his guitar. The music made by the sound of the guitar and those two voices singing the matchless words had a powerful impact upon the people in that little village church. There the story would have ended, and there the carol would have remained had it not been for an organ repairman named Karl Mauracher (person #3). When he came to fix the organ at the St. Nicholas Church, he heard about the Christmas Eve crisis and about the song Mohr and Gruber had sung together. He asked for a copy. He was so captivated by the carol that in his subsequent travels to churches repairing organs, he shared the carol with others and the circle of its familiarity grew wider and wider. But even then, the carol probably would not have been known outside of Europe were it not for the Episcopal Bishop of Florida, John Freeman Young (person #4). On a trip to Europe in 1863, Bishop Young heard the carol, was overwhelmed by its simple beauty, and proceeded to translate the German words into English. He then brought the carol into America in the form in which we sing it today. The exquisite beauty of the carol’s music is exceeded only by the extraordinary beauty of its message for the carol sings to us of worship, of oneness, and of wonder. Let me show you what I mean…
It sings to us of worship.
The focal point of our worship is that “holy infant so tender and mild.” We often speak of the star of Bethlehem, that amazing star which guided the Wise Men to the manger. But I believe that the real star of Bethlehem was not found in the sky but in that manger. Jesus is the real star of Bethlehem. He is the One we are to worship and adore. And the only gift He asks for is the gift of our hearts and our lives.
That brings me to “the forgotten king” (person #5). There is a legend about the fourth king. We usually speak of three, but in reality we don’t know how many kings there were. We say that there were three because there were three gifts, but we do not know. However, there is a legend about a fourth king. He was on his way to join the other three in the Middle Eastern desert as they pursued the star in the sky. But then he happened to encounter a poor man who had been robbed. He stopped to give aid to the man, but in so doing, he lost time. As a result, when he got to the prearranged meeting place in the desert, the other three had gone on without him. By the time he finally reached Bethlehem, it was too late. The other three kings had returned home. Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus were gone. All he found in Bethlehem was turmoil because the soldiers of King Herod were slaughtering all the little boys under the age of 2. He saw a soldier preparing to kill one of those children. He ran up to the soldier, and he pulled out of his bag the large ruby which he had brought to give to the infant Jesus. He offered that priceless ruby to the soldier in exchange for the child’s life. The soldier took the ruby and let the child live. Well as the legend has it, this fourth king then spent the rest of his life looking for Jesus. In fact, three decades later, he was in Jerusalem and heard that Jesus was there. His great desire in life was to bow down in worship before this one whom he had sought for so many years. As he combed the sheets of Jerusalem, he encountered yet another man who had been robbed and beaten. He stopped to care for him and to help him. Only later, too late, did he learn that Jesus had been crucified, was dead, and was buried.
Let me tell you something. That is just a legend. The legend is not true. But there is truth in that legend. You see of all the kings who sought Jesus, this is the one who saw Him most clearly, loved Him most dearly, and followed Him most nearly because he served Jesus’ people most sincerely—and there’s a lesson in that for us all.
And that’s why I say that the carol sings to us of oneness.
The “radiant beams” of “love’s pure light” in Jesus Christ brings “the dawn of redeeming grace.” In other words, because of the love of Jesus Christ, we belong to one another. We are one in Him, and therefore it is incumbent upon us to share, to love, to reach out to one another in the Spirit of Christmas.
Let me tell you about a man who underscores that message. He is a despairing author (person #6). He is 31 years of age, living in London, England. It is 1843 -October 6th to be exact. He leaves his row house and walks out on the streets of London. His face wears the traces of a three-month depression—writer’s block. He can’t think of anything to write. He has a family to support. He has written several books which have sold fairly well, but now the sales are slipping and his publishers are demanding something before the big season of Christmas. Since July, he has been trying come up with something, all to no avail. On this day, October 6, 1843, he goes out for a walk hoping that he might see or hear something which will trigger an inspiration. Walking near the Thames River, he sees a twelve-year-old boy. At one time this had been an elegant part of the city. It is no longer. Beggars, streetwalkers, pickpockets, orphans are everywhere. The twelve-year-old boy is an orphan, face black with charcoal dust. The author looks at the boy, and then pictures, in his own mind, another twelve-year-old boy working in a dirty factory twelve hours a day, six days a week putting labels on jars of black boot paste. In that filthy, rat-infested place, this boy’s childhood was slipping away while he earned a paltry six shillings a week. What the author is envisioning at that point is not out of his imagination, it is out of his own history. He had been that boy in the factory. Later on, he was able to leave that onerous job and go to school where he learned how to write. And could he ever write! But on this day, October 6, 1843, Charles Dickens hasn’t a word to put on paper until he sees that boy on a London street. He learns that the boy’s name is Tim. The idea is born. So Dickens puts a crutch under Tiny Tim and begins to weave a story out of his own history of miserly people at Christmas, of honest workers, and of a victim who found joy in spite of it. The result is that Scrooge’s story is published, and put on sale December 24, 1843. It sold 6,000 copies the first day—a record for that time. Of course, the reason the story sold so much is because the story said so much. The story said that the majesty and the mystery of Christmas are not in the gifts you give but in the person you are. It says that the greatest gift you receive is not something under your tree but someone under your arm, under your roof, under your care.
Let me tell you something: It’s not yet too late for you to love somebody this Christmas. It’s not yet too late for you to fmd the person whom others seem to have forgotten. It’s not yet too late to open your home and your heart and to give the joy of Christmas to someone else.
And that’s why, I think, this carol sings of wonder.
The shepherds “quaked” in wonder at the glorious sights they saw, and the glorious news they heard—the news that “Christ the Savior is born.” But, you know, it seems to me that, in our time, the wonder of Christmas is too much focused on someone else. He is the folk hero (person #7), and he is known all over the world. Some call him “Ho-tiosho.” Some call him “Pierre Noel.” Others call him “Kris Kringle.” Still others call him “Sinter Klas.” Of course, you know him as “Santa Claus.”
His real name was Nicholas. He was born in 280 A.D. in what is now Turkey. His parents died when he was nine. You probably thought he went to college and majored in toy manufacturing. Actually, he went to a Catholic seminary and studied Christian doctrine. You probably thought he was fat and chubby. Actually, he was slim and wiry. You probably thought he wore red. Actually, he wore black. You probably thought he was peaceful and sweet. Actually, he was put into jail twice by the Emperor Diocletian for getting into fights with people who were persecuting the church. Ultimately, he became the Bishop of Myra, in what we know as Turkey, and from there his fame began to spread. So where did all of this start? I mean, I can understand calling him St. Nicholas, but what about the rest of it? Best we can figure, it started when Nicholas learned that his next-door neighbor, who had three daughters, didn’t have enough money to put up for their dowry so they could get married. So one night, Nicholas secretly crawled up to the neighbor’s window, and tossed a small bag of coins onto a table marked for the first daughter. The next night, he did the same thing for the second daughter. The third night, he secretly dropped in more coins for the third daughter. Well, you know how people tend to embellish a good story. Within a few years, it was said that Nicholas didn’t put the money on a table rather he dropped it through a—fill in the blank—chimney! And the money wasn’t just a small bag of coins, it was a large bag of cash, and it didn’t land on the floor. No, guess where it landed. Well, the girls had hung up their stockings to dry and. . . You wondered where that came from, didn’t you? Well, the story began to grow and spread, and by the year 1300 people started to draw pictures of this St. Nicholas still wearing black and still small and wiry. In 1830, he was portrayed in red for the first time. In 1866, he acquired boots and carried a basket of food under his arm. In the early 1900’s, he was still small but, by this time, he had grown a beard. In 1930 was the picture that set him up for good: he is tall, robust, hefty, cherub-faced, and drinking a Coca-Cola—our Jolly Old St Nick!
Isn’t it amazing how that story has grown? But let me ask you: what does Santa do about your death, for example? How does he handle your mistakes, your sins, your failures, and by the way, where is Santa in February, or April or July? What’s my point? My point is that Christmas is actually about One infinitely greater than Santa Claus. The incredible story of Christmas is that God Almighty Himself came down from heaven in the form of an infant “sleeping in heavenly peace” in His mother’s arms. Sound incredible? Sure, but the very incredibility gives it its greatest credibility because we could never think up something that crazy, could we? You see, the wildness of the story is its greatest witness. Who could ever have imagined that God would do what He did?
Let me tell you something. When it comes to sleighs and reindeer and lots of toys, go to Santa Claus. He’ll take care of you. Will he ever? And I just imagine that he’s going to do that again tonight. However, dear friends, when it comes to death, when it comes to guilt, when it comes to your purpose in life, when it comes to your eternal destiny, come to the manger. Come to Jesus Christ. That’s what “Silent Night” is all about. For this carol, as no other, reminds us of God’s seeking, saving, redeeming love. This carol, as no other, reminds us that God gave His only Son for us. This carol, as no other, reminds us that God’s grace and salvation are ours through Jesus Christ, and believe me, that’s worth singing about…