The year was 1818. A group of traveling actors were working their way through the towns of the Austrian Alps re-enacting the story of Christ’s birth in congregations. They were to perform at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg. Unfortunately, the church organ wasn’t working and so the actors performed instead in a private home. Among the attendees was the assistant pastor, Josef Mohr, who took an extended way home after the performance to reflect on what he had seen.
As he stood overlooking the snow covered village, he remembered a poem he had written some time before and decided the poem might be turned into a carol for his congregation to sing at their Christmas Eve service the next night. The next day, Mohr visited the church organist. Franz Gruber only had a few hours to come up with a simple melody which could be sung with a guitar because of the broken organ. That evening, the two performed “Silent Night” for the very first time.
It remains arguably the most well known and often sung Christmas carol. The lyrics and the melody are indeed simple, and in such reflect the simple beauty of that night. But there is a phrase couched within that simplicity that bears some further reflection. The third verse goes like this:
Silent night, holy night
Son of God, oh, 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
What a statement to make. That this baby, born in a nothing town to nothing parents in questionable circumstances would from the very beginning be “Lord.” And yet it seems that there was at least one person that grasped a measure of the implications of Jesus’ birth. One surprising person – Herod:
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived unexpectedly in Jerusalem, saying ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’ When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him…” (Matthew 2:1-3).
There was a reason that the whole city went into panic when Herod was displeased, for he was insanely suspicious.
If anyone was suspected to be a rival to his power, that person was eliminated. He had killed many members of the Sanhedrin when he came to power. Later he slaughtered 300 court officers. He murdered his wife and her mother. He assassinated his oldest son and 2 others. The Roman Emperor Augustus said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son. When it came time for him to die later, he ordered that the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem should be arrested on trumped up charges and imprisoned, and that the moment he died, they be executed. He was determined that someone would be crying when he died, even if not for him.
Now come these three dignitaries from the east. Herod was secure to the west; that’s where the support of Rome was. But in the east, there were enemies. In fact, Herod had spent the better part of his first years in power building fortress-palaces along the eastern border of the country to repel any attack which might someday come. And here, into his palace, come three high ranking officials from the suspicious east asking about a baby that was born who they were calling the king of the Jews. All in all, this was a recipe for disaster for an insecure ruler, and we know the rest of the story, shocking though it is.
Consider this: Herod was around 70 years old at this time, and yet was so drunk on his need for power and control that he was willing to commit genocide because of one baby based on an obscure prophecy from a religion that he himself did not even believe in.
Jesus, Lord at thy birth. And if that is so, it has profound meaning for all of us. Herod knew it. At least part of it.
But there is a foil in this Christmas story for Herod.
In contrast to this threatened king is a regular guy. An uneducated tradesman with no real aspirations and no real dreams. It’s a man who married a woman of questionable reputation and became a father to an unknown child. It’s the one who moved his family all over the place, away from family, into the pagan land of Egypt, then to the sticks out in Nazareth. This is the man who sacrificed his livelihood, his reputation, his career – everything – and then simply drifts out of the pages of history.
Here is Joseph, the sacrificial father, standing humbly in contrast to the threatened king.The regular guy versus the powerful dignitary. The ordinary man versus the person of privilege. Yet these two men had something in common, and it’s that they both recognized at some level the response required to this meager baby born in a humble stable.
And that response is “all”.
Our very lives.
Every hope, dream, ambition – all must be brought to this new king and laid at his feet in faith. For some, that’s just too much. But then there are others who find, even sometimes to their own surprise, their willingness to do so.
The question for us, then, is whether we will fall in line with the threatened king who clung so desperately to all he had built for himself or the sacrificial father who lost Himself in the greatness of Jesus.