How the greatest carol teaches us to embrace the ineffable in a lockstep world
There are bound to come times during this holiday season when the lambently numinous opening notes of “Silent Night” make their way towards your inner ear, with you scarcely noticing them.
Call it the aural wallpaper of the season. Or, perhaps, a kind of Christmas autopilot, where we cease to distinguish carol from carol, Hallmark movie from Hallmark movie, topfull glass of eggnog after topfull glass of eggnog.
But what if there’s something deeper at work with a carol that was given its first airing in the world 200 years ago, with where we are—and what we tend to repel from—here in 2018?
Franz Xaver Gruber was, by all historical records, a fairly average man. A schoolmaster and organist in Austria, who wrote a tune to some words by a friend of his, a young priest named Joseph Mohr. Simple DIY project, and the two were happy when it was performed on that same Christmas Eve, which is all they had hoped for.
“Silent Night” is our greatest carol because it reminds us, like all great works of art do, that it necessary to let go in this life and give in to ideas and feelings, sometimes people, in a way that requires trust on our parts. Not submission, but faith—faith in who we can become, faith in the power of connection.
Often now the ineffable terrifies us. The unknown. Social media has made us control freaks of the worst kind, where it is our aim to countermand reality. If you are not happy, if you are struggling, you can log on to Facebook and project a contrasting, simulacrum of reality. You get the right series of selfies, use enough emojis and exclamation points, whip in a dash of acronyms like chocolate dust atop your seasonal Starbucks latte, and away you go.
The net result is that everyone becomes more scared of relinquishing control and letting life be what it is at the moment, and then we all start to think, “hmmm, he has it great,” and “look at her, that’s amazing,” and we become more cowed, we want that firmer grip on our narrative, and lacking a grip, we invent narratives.
I make a point to really listen to “Silent Night” each year. And by listen, I mean not just hear it, in the sense of, “oh, there it is again,” but as if to become some kind of vibrating particulate myself that travels down into the sonic heart of the carol. A lot of people balk when they suspect something is religious in nature, probably more so than ever. But the holiness of “Silent Night” is the holiness of that which bonds person to person, not Paraclete to churchgoer. It feels dark, mysterious, a cave for spelunking, but welcoming even in its solemnity, as if a placard had been thrown up on the wall outside that read, “Have some hope, ye who enter here.”
Christmas carols can be scary. That’s something I’ve always liked about them. They’re almost always in a minor key, the really great ones. Sometimes, like in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman,” the Devil himself pops in.
But this is a carol that’s a reminder that there’s good scare, too, so to speak. When we give in to that which is, no matter how daunting it is, something that had felt inexorable becomes a portal to that which we would have always wanted, had we known it was out there, those connections that are the narrative, that require no forced narrative.
It’s nice to have a song that we are bound to hear at a certain point each year that reminds us that though things may be bigger than what we are, nothing is so big that it’s not possible to be liberated from the ostensibly inexorable.
That deliverance can take all forms. We’ve recently marked the centennial of the Armistice of WWI, but the Great War paused for a spell in 1914 with a Christmas truce where men who had previously been bayoneting each other stopped to sing “Silent Night” in solidarity.
Let us assume that you do not bayonet anyone in your life, but we do have a tendency to run ourselves through the gut with our need for control and projection, and our aversion to the unknown, that cave where wonderful things may await us.
“Toss yourself in,” a carol like “Silent Night” has been saying for two hundred years now. You might just find you bounce—bounce back to something you’d like to be again, bounce forward to something better.