“I know the plans I have for you…” –Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)
It seems like Christmas nowadays requires endless planning: gifts, cards, budgeting, entertainment, expectations, meals, maybe travel…. But what do you do when the game plan goes off the rails?
A devotional “Try to be more Flexible”* asks, “If plans need to be changed, does it send you into a tailspin or do you stop and consider that God may have a different plan?”
Much in Joseph’s life didn’t go to plan. In fact, he was the result of an unplanned pregnancy. Born out of wedlock in 1792 in traditional Central Europe, he was an outcast, made worse by the fact that his father abandoned his mother when she was expecting. His single mother bravely struggled to raise her son. Fortunately, the church choirmaster noticed Joseph’s musical gifts and, stepping in as a father figure, made sure Joseph got an education including instruction in organ, guitar and violin.
When Joseph was only seven, the Napoleonic Wars broke out, spilling blood and spreading terror across Europe for 16 years, (four times longer than US involvement in WWII.)
Despite Joseph’s difficult childhood, (or maybe because of it,) he became a Jesus-follower, entered seminary at 19, and in 1815 at age 23 was ordained as a priest. That same year, the Napoleonic Wars ended.
Perhaps inspired by the recent end of the nightmarish war plus the serenity of a winter night in the snow-covered Alps, Joseph once wrote a short poem about a peaceful setting but put it away.
Two years later, as priest in the Austrian village of Oberndorf, Joseph befriended the church organist Franz who was also a teacher in a nearby town.
But as Christmas 1818 approached, the bad news hit. The church organ was in disrepair, perhaps due to flooding. The organ repairman was called, but he wouldn’t be able to make a service call until after Christmas.
A Christmas Eve service without music was unthinkable, but what to do?
Pressed for time and seeking God’s guidance, on December 24 Joseph showed Franz the poem he had written two years before and asked if his friend could put it to music, for two solo voices, a choir, and guitar accompaniment.
Amazingly…some would say, miraculously…Franz wrote the melody within just a few hours, which they then performed that same night, right after the Christmas Eve Mass had been given.
The song might have been lost to history, but when the organ repairman later showed up, he heard the song, was deeply moved, and took the song to Tyrol, a part of western Austria known for its famous choirs. Once accepted there, the song spread across the world. It was first performed in the US in 1839 in New York’s Central Park.
Ironically, the song about peace was translated into English in the US in 1863, in the middle of the bloody Civil War.
The men’s full names? Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber.
The German name of the poem that became a song?
Its English name?
Just think: if the Christmas Eve service had gone “to plan” and the organ had been working, the pastors would have used the traditional carols they had, and “Stille Nacht” would have remained an unknown poem folded in Joseph’s pocket, forever forgotten.
Now you know the rest of the story.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV).
*The Word for You Today Devotional, Oct. 26, 2023