- - Wednesday, December 23, 2020

In 1816, near the starving and ruined city of Salzburg, Father Joseph Mohr suffered through the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. In that suffering, he wrote a poem about the nativity of Christ.

On Christmas Eve in 1818, Father Mohr asked Franz Gruber, a school teacher and church organist in a nearby town, to set the poem to music and write a guitar accompaniment because the parish organ had been damaged by flooding.

It is a simple tune and a simple set of lyrics created almost by happenstance by ordinary men struggling through difficult times. Yet the song has been sung by billions of people in all kinds of places — including battlefields during Christmas truces — and by singers of all types and intensities of religious beliefs.

The song Father Mohr and Franz Gruber created — “Silent Night” — is the most popular Christmas carol on the planet. It has been translated into 300 languages and dialects and been covered by more than 700 artists ranging from Bing Crosby to Al Green.

Why is it so popular?

While the lyrics are simple, their majesty is inescapable: “Son of God, love’s pure light/Radiant beams from thy holy face/With the dawn of redeeming grace.”

They express a powerful idea: that God loves us and wants us to be happy; that he comes to bring light and grace into our lives. He sent his son to save us and to teach us by example how to live.

Father Mohr, despite struggling against poverty and privation in the wake of destructive and pointless warfare, captured the hope, optimism and what T.S. Eliot would later call the “beauty and joy based on a devotion that is at once both religious and realistic” that marks Christmas.

Christmas is celebrated by precisely because it teaches and reminds us that hope, optimism, beauty and joy are realistic.

At St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church in Chinatown in the District of Columbia, at the end of each Christmas midnight Mass, the congregation used to sing an a cappella version of three verses of “Silent Night.” Perhaps because it was late, perhaps because we were all tired, perhaps because we were all way too in touch with our feelings, few of us made it through the song without shedding a tear.

Over the years, I’ve wondered why.

One answer is that in singing the song, one is overcome by a feeling of gratitude for a loving God who came to live with us and save us.

One is also overcome with a sense of perspective — a feeling of the largeness of the moment and the smallness of ourselves.

The song and the event it celebrates emphasize our shared history and brotherhood with the other billion and half Christians, as well as everyone else on the planet, each of whom — like us — is making their way to God as best they can.

When you think about it that way, whatever fears one has about ourselves or our civilization recede into insignificance. The problems of the day are seen as just that: the problems of the day. What happened on Christmas is just so much bigger than all of our troubles.

Father Mohr and Franz Gruber understood that. So should we.

• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

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