Christ’s life begins and ends in poverty. It’s easy to see the depth of pain in the end; where the Messiah is homeless and stripped of his sole earthly possession moments before being hung on a cross. The beginning of Christ’s life, however, has been sanitized.
“Manger” is a generous word because it distances our minds from the realities of an infant resting in a feeding trough. Jesus’ story starts not just in financial poverty, but also relational poverty. It doesn’t appear that Joseph had family or friends in the town of his ancestors— searching for room in an inn is the task of a foreigner.
While it’s easy to miss all this while we carol, the reality of Christ’s birth was never far from the minds of the authors behind the carols. Born to an impoverished single mother, Joseph Mohr penned the original German lyrics to “Silent Night” around 1816, while serving as the Father of a small village church in the alps. Mohr would spend long sections of his life ill, ultimately succumbing to a pulmonary disease at 55.
Thousands travel to the Austrian Alps to visit the town where Mohr is buried, but only because it’s a now thriving ski resort. It’s easy to miss the full impact of Mohr’s life; present luxury quickly overwhelms past reality.
Although far from affluent, Mohr also found himself significantly more comfortable than his family had been. In this, he chose to leverage everything he had for others. Mohr died penniless after reportedly donating all his money to children’s education and care for the elderly. (Mohr demonstrates how a Christian with wealth should live not in guilt, but in thankfulness and generosity.)
The lyrics to “Silent Night” can easily trick our mind’s eye into seeing comfort and privilege that simply were not present—Heavenly Peace entered our world through the depths of poverty. Silence and stillness were not present that night for the reasons the affluent find them, but because God’s presence filled our barren world with radiant sufficiency. Truly, Jesus was Lord at his birth.
Listen: Silent Night by Sarah McLauchlan (3:48)
The Call to Prayer
Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker. For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand — Psalm 95.6-7
– From Christmastide: Prayers for Advent Through Epiphany from The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle.