Hymn by Hymn

STLT#251, Silent Night

Dear Hymnal Commission:

I love you. I am grateful for all the hard work and hard decisions you made. You have taken some chances that pay off, found music that is amazing, fixed troubling texts.

And yes, your choices to shift some of the language in this carol was not unfounded, based on the much needed rubric of gender and empire.

And.

Given that “Lord” appears elsewhere in our hymns, and our theologies tend to agree that Jesus was male-identified, I’m not sure this was the right place to mess with a deeply familiar lyric. Verses one and two are in tact, but look at verse three:

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,”
sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
child of God, love’s pure light
radiant beams from thy holy face,
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.

In case you forgot, the third verse in the original translation goes like this:

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!

The whole “Lord at thy birth” thing goes along with the “redeeming grace” thing…removing one and not the other, to me, weakens the theology.

Now you might say “why are you quibbling over a translation? And you’d be right to point out that this is just a translation, from the German (we’ll talk more about that tomorrow). But the long-held English translation of verses 1 and 3, by 19th century Anglican minister John Freeman Young, is both familiar and beloved. (According to Hymnary.org, the translator of verse 2 is unknown, but was apparently in common usage by the time Young got his hands on it.) And when it comes to Christmas, I lean toward the familiar and beloved.

I love this hymn. I love its simplicity. I even love its original English words, empire and all. I love using it at the end of a Christmas Eve service, with candlelight, people mostly singing from memory, lost in the holy and sacred for just a moment.

 

2 thoughts on “STLT#251, Silent Night

  1. Just reading this brings a lump to my throat. Is it possible to end a Christmas Eve service in candlelight without singing “Silent Night”? I don’t think so. And I’ll just say here in front of God and everybody that the Best Ministerial Moment Of The Entire Year is seeing those beloved candle-lit faces in the darkened sanctuary singing their hearts out, so softly, so reverently. It makes everything else worth it. When we conducted our last Christmas Eve service (having announced our pending retirement a few months earlier), there wasn’t a dry eye in the house at that moment — ours included.

  2. I print both the modified version and the original in the order of service for Christmas Eve. I sing the modified version. (And I was raised to sing the original in German by my grandparents. It is the only piece of music I know how to play on the piano.)

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