Legacy of Joy

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

These are the words my grandmother would sing while playing her organ. Every Friday night, the whole extended family would gather at her house. As kids, we sat around the table for hours coming up with games to play with the napkin holders or whatever we had in our pockets. I still think I have the record for how long I could make a quarter spin until it stops. As the evening died down, we eventually all gathered round the organ, singing hymns in four part harmony, and this was especially true during the Christmas season.

My grandmother loved to sing the hymns of her childhood in German. Mimi, as we affectionately called her, grew up with 7 other brothers and sisters on the “Happy Home Farm” in North Dakota. Her brothers all went to work for the church over their lives, and she married a young man that she met at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. She was part of the Bietz clan, a large extended German family.  Almost every member of the family ended up in lives of service to the church over the years, leaving quite a legacy of influence.

But all that legacy was lost on me as a teenager growing up and singing these songs with my Grandmother. I took German in high school so I could connect with her a little more, and the correct pronunciation of these words was pretty much all I got out of the two years that I took. But Mimi loved it when I would sing with her. She loved that she could sing this song, in particular, in her native German.
The original words and music for “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) were created in Austria by Joseph Mohr (words) and Franz Xaver Gruber (melody). Following its first performance in Oberndorf, Austria in 1818, it took decades before “Stille Nacht” became the worldwide Christmas classic it is today. The English lyrics were not written until 1863 by the Episcopal priest John Freeman Young. Today “Stille Nacht” is sung in almost every language on the planet.

When I think of Joy at Christmas, the simple image of standing next to her, with my family around me, singing this song. It was sometimes beautiful, sometimes discordant, but always sung with the gusto of people who find home within one another. It was not just a Christmas song, but a song that tied us together in family heritage, faith, and love for one another. Singing it in English will never quite have the power and joy that singing it in German on those nights had. For me, it was formative, it was an outward expression and understanding of the Joy that can come from family, from song, and from a shared faith.

We were not a perfect family, far from it. But finding Joy in one another throughout these special seasons is a way to recognize the grace and joy that has been given to us through Jesus Christ and his act of incarnation. It reminds me of Matthew 2:9-10 that says: “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

Christmas affords us these simple, but joyful moments with those we love, remembering that they are incarnations of Jesus as they gather, sing, and share in the traditions of generations.  
Timothy Gillespie
Lead Pastor at Crosswalk in Redlands, CA

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