The manger scene, the Nativity as told by Luke, and “Silent Night”

Watching Rick Steves’s PBS program this evening about Christmas celebrations in Europe (a continent which by the way seems to have lots of young people vigorously participating in Christmas observances, and hardly seems the imminently dying civilization that the Europe-hating Mark Steyn loves to tell us about), I learned that the tradition of the manger scene as we know it was invented by St. Francis. The following thoughts occurred to me.

Something we take for granted in Christmas settings as well as in innumerable paintings, the manger scene, has not always been a part of Christianity; it was conceived and brought into being at a certain moment in time, more than a thousand years after the beginning of Christianity. Yet the manger scene is in harmony with and is a lovely expression of the Gospels, namely the Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke Chapter Two, the shepherds abiding in their fields at night, when the angel appears and announces the birth of Christ, and the shepherds go and see the newborn child lying in a manger.

Francis, 1,200 years after Luke, was seeing the same truth, was in some sense having the same experience that Luke conveyed in writing the Gospel. In other words, St. Luke and St. Francis were part of a single “tradition,” comprised of a shared experience of a particular truth. Francis gave that truth new expression and embodiment which we are still experiencing to this day.

Here is Luke Chapter Two, verses 8-16:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

Also, the very first manger scene, by St. Francis, had a stone image of the baby lying in the manger, plus a couple of animals. )A manger, by the way, is not a stable, as I had thought, but a container in a stable from which cattle or horses feed, and this is what the infant Jesus was placed in.) Mary and Joseph were not included in Francis’s manger scene. From the very start, the animals were key, showing how the advent of Christ affected all of life. This is especially seen in early Florentine Renaissance paintings and illuminations of the manger scene, in which we see that the animals themselves are in some way transfigured by the presence of Christ, just as his parents and the shepherds are. We sense this same transfiguration of animals and of man’s relationship with them in Luke, in the perfect beauty of the sentence, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” And of course in the Gospels Jesus compares himself to a shepherd protecting his sheep, even giving his life for his sheep.

Then I learned something else tonight, that the song “Silent Night,” perhaps the most beautiful of all Christmas carols, was written in 1816 by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, who was returning home on a wintry night and was so enchanted by the stars and the stillness and God’s majesty that he wrote a Christmas poem about it. Then two years later he asked a friend, Franz Xavier Gruber, to write music for the poem and it was performed in church that same night, Christmas Eve, 1818, accompanied only by a guitar. (See information below.)

I feel the writing of “Silent Night” also goes back to the Gospel of Luke, the shepherds abiding in their fields by night, watching over their sheep, in perfect stillness and harmony, and somehow, without their knowing it, in readiness for the vision that is about to come to them, when the angel appears and tells them that Christ the savior, perfect man and perfect God, is born into the world. The “feel” of “Silent Night” is similar to and complements the “feel” of the Nativity story in Luke. So Mohr and Gruber are part of a particular, living tradition, within the larger tradition of Christianity, separated by two millenia from Luke, by 700 years from Francis, but finding new expressions for and fulfilling in new ways the same vision.

This is what a tradition is. It is the development over time of a shared experience of higher truth.

This by the way explains how the Old Testament was written. It may have been written by different men at different times, but the same Revelation was coming to them.

* * *

Here are the lyrics of “Silent Night,” in English and the original German (first, second, and sixth verse, which are normally the only ones sung); then information on St. Francis and the Manger scene; and finally excerpts from two articles on the writing of “Silent Night.”

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
Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia
Christ the Savior is born
Christ the Savior is born

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

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute heilige Paar.
Holder Knab im lockigten Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Gottes Sohn! O wie lacht
Lieb´ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da schlägt uns die rettende Stund,
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
Jesus in deiner Geburt!

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Alleluja.
Tönt es laut bei Ferne und Nah:
Jesus, der Retter ist da!
Jesus, der Retter ist da!

St. Francis and the Crib

by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.

To celebrate the birth of Christ, St. Francis recreated the manger scene in a cave in the hills above Greccio, Italy. The real miracle was not, as some people say, that the figure of the infant came to life—but that there St. Francis first understood the humility of the Incarnation.

Christmas was 15 days away. Francis was staying at a hermitage at Fonte Columbo. He had just come from Rome—the last time, for he would die in three years—where the pope had approved his Rule. The brief future would be filled with pain, even the pain of the wounds of Christ.

How to celebrate Christmas? He remembered his visit to the Holy Land, to Bethlehem.

Why not? A kind of replica of the manger there. There was a cave, in Greccio…

He had a good friend, Giovanni (John) Vellita, whom he had met on one of his preaching tours. John was a military man, lord of Greccio, just two miles away. John had fallen under the spell of Francis, had renounced all worldly honors and was trying to live a life imitating that of Francis as well as he could.

Francis, with the assurance of friendship, sent word: “If you want to celebrate the Feast of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I wish to recall to memory the little child who was born in Bethlehem. I want to set before our bodily eyes the hardships of his infant needs, how he lay in the manger, how with an ox and ass standing by he lay upon the hay.”

John began immediately. People prepared torches and candles to light up the night. The manger was prepared in the cave, and the ox and ass brought in. When Francis came to the friars’ hermitage, he was delighted.

The great evening arrived. People began to come in procession, carrying their torches and candles. The woods rang with their song. They were rediscovering the joy of childhood.

Today, in Greccio, one can still see the stone—perhaps three feet high and two feet wide—on which the hay was placed. It has a brownish gray top and bottom, with a band of gray in the center. The top has a rough, shallow, V-shaped indentation. Here the carved image of the baby was laid. There were no figures of Joseph and Mary, just the two animals.

As the villagers and friars crowded around, a priest began the Mass. Francis gave the sermon. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, Francis’ contemporary, writes: “The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness….He sang the Gospel in a sonorous voice, a clear and sonorous voice, inviting all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people standing about and spoke charming words concerning the birth of the poor King, and the little town of Bethlehem….When he spoke the name ‘Child of Bethlehem’ or ‘Jesus,’ his tongue licked his lips, relishing and savoring with pleased palate the sweetness of the words.”

The accounts do not say whether the child was a living baby or a carved figure. It was probably the latter, for it is recorded that at least one of the observers “saw the infant come alive.”

Silent Night!

The origin of the Christmas carol we know as Silent Night was a poem that was written in 1816 by an Austrian priest called Joseph Mohr. On Christmas Eve in 1818 in the small alpine village called Oberndorf it is reputed that the organ at St. Nicholas Church had broken. Joseph Mohr gave the poem of Silent Night (Stille Nacht) to his friend Franz Xavier Gruber and the melody for Silent Night was composed with this in mind. The music to Silent Night was therefore intended for a guitar and the simple score was finished in time for Midnight Mass. Silent Night is the most famous Christmas carol of all time!.

History (Wikipedia)

The carol was first performed in the Nicola-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Oberndorf, Austria on December 25, 1818. Mohr had composed the words much earlier, in 1816, but on Christmas Eve brought them to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for them. The reason for this is unclear, since guitars were normally associated with drinking— perhaps Mohr simply wanted a new carol for the Midnight Mass, but tradition has it that the organ at the Nicola-Kirche was not working that night (a popular version of the story claims that mice had eaten out the bellows). At first, Gruber didn’t agree with Mohr’s proposal because he was afraid that people who came to the church wouldn’t like the music which was played with the guitar. But there was nothing else to do. Gruber finally accepted Mohr’s proposal and worked on the music. When the music was composed, it was only a few hours before the Mass began. At first, people who came to the church were surprised to listen to the music because it was played with the guitar, but soon they were charmed by its sweet melody.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 10, 2006 11:52 PM | Send

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