BREAD OF LIFE

BREAD OF LIFE
 this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. (john 6: 50)
I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood; you have no life in you. (John 6: 53)

Friday, January 23, 2015

SIN AND JUDGMENT

Sin and judgment in Breaking Bad

I’m not the first person to claim that Breaking Bad, which concluded its five-season run in 2013, is a deeply moral television series. Catholic NYT columnist Ross Douthat blogged about it extensively, and sources both Christian and secular have suggested that the show embodies an almost Biblical sense of good, evil, sin and punishment.

After watching the series, which constantly explores themes of moral agency, I found myself with a better understanding of why hell exists, and the need for justice. Interestingly, the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan (who was raised Catholic), has said something similar:

I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’
I urge even those who have no interest in the show as a whole to watch this incredible scene from the seventh episode of season four, entitled “Problem Dog,” which shows profoundly the human need, even desire, to be judged and to atone for one’s sins.

The background of the scene: Jesse (one of the main characters, played by Aaron Paul) is racked with guilt after having committed murder, and at a recovery group meeting, he makes a veiled confession, saying he killed a “problem dog.” Jesse knows he has done something evil, and that the support group’s message of non-judgment and self-acceptance won’t cut it.

Aaron Paul’s stunning performance is a cry from the heart of a man who desperately wants to be judged, for his actions to have consequences: “If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s

Thursday, January 15, 2015

12 STEPS TO ANOTHER GOSPEL?

Bill Wilson

Part One

Tyndale House Publishers advertises their Life Recovery Bible with these words: "Imagine having Abraham, King David, and the Apostle Paul in your 12-step group." The ad continues: "Like you, they found recovery by trusting in a power greater than themselves." Besides presenting a psychological, 12-step biased "character profile" of Abraham, David, and Paul, this adulterated version of the Bible includes "fascinating 12-step notes on almost every page," "recovery themes at the beginning of each book," "12-step devotions, serenity prayer devotions, and much, much more." The ad assures the reader that "every study help has been written by a biblical scholar who has personally experienced the 12 steps."

When Christians seek to combine the ways of the world with Christianity they end up with a distorted gospel at least, but more often it ends up being another gospel and another form of sanctification. Twelve-Step programs originated with Alcoholics Anonymous. Now they are embraced and followed religiously by numerous other groups, including Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Co-dependents Anonymous.

Churches have housed AA meetings for years and now many leading Christians are promoting various Twelve-Step programs. We wonder if they have explored the history of AA’s Twelve Steps and the implications of programs centred around any unspecified higher power. The following excerpt from our book 12 Steps to Destruction: Co - dependency/Recovery Heresies gives a brief background of AA in terms of its religious roots and goals.

Alcoholics Anonymous Religion.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, originally written by Bill Wilson, came from his own personal experience and world view. Step One, "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable," expresses the relief he experienced when his doctor convinced him that his heavy drinking was caused by an "allergy" over which he was powerless.

Thus, when Wilson completed his drying out treatment, he thought his problem was solved. He had been relieved of guilt for moral failure and had been diagnosed as having a disease. The cure was simple. Just don’t take another drink. Nevertheless, his confidence in his newly found sobriety did not last long. In spite of his belief that his excessive drinking was not his fault, but rather due to an "allergy," Wilson felt doomed.

During this bleak time Wilson received a phone call from an "old drinking buddy," Ebby Thatcher. They hadn’t seen each other for five years and Thatcher seemed like a new man. When Wilson asked him why he wasn’t drinking and why he seemed so different, Thatcher replied, "I’ve got religion." He told Wilson that when he had prayed God had released him from the desire to drink and filled him with "peace of mind and happiness of a kind he had not known for years."1

Wilson was uncomfortable with Thatcher’s testimony. Yet he desired Thatcher’s freedom from alcohol. Wilson drank for several more days until he reached a point of great agony and hopelessness (the full intensity of Step One). He then returned to the hospital for detoxification treatment.

Wilson’s Conversion.

Wilson’s religious experience occurred at the hospital. He deeply desired the sobriety his friend had, but Wilson still "gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself." Up to the last moment Wilson resisted the idea of God. Nevertheless, at this extreme point of agony, alone in his room, he cried out, "If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!"2

Because Wilson believed he was helplessly afflicted by a dread disease, he cried out to God as a helpless victim, not as a sinner. He had already been absolved from guilt through the doctor’s allergy theory. Thus he approached God from the helpless stance of a victim, suffering the agony of his affliction, and commanded God to show Himself. Here is Wilson’s description of his experience:

Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy—I was conscious of nothing else for a time.3
He saw an internal vision of a mountain with a clean wind blowing through him. He sensed a great peace and was "acutely conscious of a Presence which seemed like a veritable sea of living spirit." He thought, "This must be the great reality. The God of the preachers." He said:
For the first time, I felt that I really belonged. I knew that I was loved and could love in return. I thanked my God, who had given me a glimpse of His absolute self. Even though a pilgrim upon an uncertain highway, I need be concerned no more, for I had glimpsed the great beyond.4
The experience had a profound effect on Wilson. From that point on he believed in the existence of God and he stopped drinking alcohol. Thus, Steps Two and Three read: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity," and "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him."5 (Emphasis in original.)

While this experience included God as Bill Wilson understood him, there is no mention of faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ and salvation from sin based upon Jesus’ death and resurrection. Rather than attempting to understand his experience in the light of the Bible, Wilson turned to William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Philosopher-psychologist William James (1842-1910) was intrigued with mystical, existential experiences that people reported to him. He contended that such experiences were superior to any religious doctrine.6 He did not care about the religious persuasion of mystics as long as they achieved a personal experience. James says:


In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity. . . .7
It is easy to see how such a description fit Bill Wilson’s experience. The mystical experiences reported by James also followed calamity, admission of defeat, and an appeal to a higher power. The official AA biography of Wilson says:
James gave Bill the material he needed to understand what had just happened to him—and gave it to him in a way that was acceptable to Bill. Bill Wilson, the alcoholic, now had his spiritual experience ratified by a Harvard professor, called by some the father of American psychology!8 (Emphasis in original.)
Most people assume that the founders of Alcoholics’ Anonymous were Christians. After all, Wilson talks about God, prayer, and morality. On the other hand, Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is absent from his spiritual experience. There is no mention of Jesus Christ providing the only way of salvation through paying the price for Bill Wilson’s sin. Wilson’s faith system was not based on Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Nor is there any mention of Jesus Christ being Lord of his life.

Not only is there clear evidence that Bill Wilson did not embrace Jesus Christ as His Lord and Saviour and as the only way to the Father, but Wilson was also heavily involved in occult activities in his search for spiritual experiences. These are the roots of Alcoholics Anonymous rather than Christianity. Part Two of this article discusses Wilson’s spirituality and occult practices.

===================================================

Notes:

1 Pass It On: The story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1984, pp. 111, 115.

2 Ernest Kurtz. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Centre City, MN: Hazelden Educational Services, 1979, p. 19.

3 Pass It On, op. cit., p. 121.

4 Ibid.

5 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1952, 1953, 1981.

6 William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). New York: Viking Penguin Inc. 1982, p. xxiv.

7 Ibid., p. 419.

8 Pass It On, op. cit., p. 125.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

CONVERTS AND KINGDOMS

How the Church Converted the Pagan West and How We Can Do It Again

by Diane Moczar - published by Catholic Answers, 2012

Forward by Father John McCloskey

Okay, I confess. My two favourite Church historians of this century and the last are the late Warren Carroll and Diane Moczar, the author of this book. Why? Simply because Carroll was and Moczar is a fully credentialed historian who clearly believes that the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ and who makes the history of the Church excitingly page-turning while not being fictional. They write from a faith perspective that recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of the members of the Church, from popes to laymen, who populate their pages, but they recognize that all will be well in the end. After all, we await the Parousia, which we all will experience either in this life or in the life above (we hope!).

This most recent volume by Professor Moczar deals with great conversions to Catholicism through the centuries and down to our own time, conversions that have had an outsized impact not only on the Church but also on the world we live in.

Some of the individual converts were kings who brought all their subjects along for the ride to salvation. Others, like St. Patrick and St. Juan Diego, experienced mystical encounters or inspirations, revelations, or apparitions that changed their lives and won whole nations and even continents to Catholicism.

Or think of St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus, who converted from a life of sin when he was deprived of the pulp fiction of his era and in desperation picked up some classics of spiritual reading while convalescing from battle wounds. Through his resolute "yes" to Christ the whole Orient was eventually opened to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Of course there are various roads to conversion. Most readers have probably experienced the most common one without any memory of it. This is the sacrament of baptism administered in infancy, thanks to loving parents and to the loving desire of God the Father to adopt newborn children as his own sons and daughters. From the time of the apostles, however, there has been another and often more dramatic experience of conversion, that of previously unbaptized adults. There are, for example, the spectacular conversions of the first centuries of Christianity and the gradual en masse conversion of the barbarian tribes and nations over the course of almost 900 years–among whom the ancestors of most of the readers of this book are included. These conversions produced what we call the West or Christendom.

Thanks to the heroic missionaries and to ongoing globalization, the Church continues to grow and win converts in Africa and the Far East. Yet the West, cradle of the faith, is in serious peril due to scientism, consumerism, practical atheism, mass apostasy, and other ills. Who knows? Perhaps Africa and the Far East will re-evangelize us to return the favour. We have the assurance that the Church will always be here until the Lord comes to judge the living and the dead, but that could be any time from tomorrow to a billion years hence.

Church started with twelve apostles, and in a little more than 2,000 years it has never had a down year; it is always growing, producing new saints and laying new foundations to face the challenges of the age. In his book The Nature and Mission of Theology, Pope Benedict XVI tells us: "This is why in every age the path to faith can take its bearings by converts; it explains why they in particular can help us to recognize the reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15) and to bear witness to it. The connection between faith and theology is not therefore some sort of sentimental or pietistic twaddle but is a direct consequence of the logic of the thing and is corroborated by the whole of history."

Diane Moczar has written a marvellous book about great converts–many of them saints, others not–who changed not just the Church but also the destiny of human civilization. But remember, we live in the present, not the past. In recent years, as many as a million Americans have converted to Catholicism. How did this happen?

It happened in many different ways, tailored to the needs, desires, strengths, and weaknesses of each soul. However, almost all converts testify to having one thing in common: the example of a friend, relative, or co-worker who at some point in their journey asked them Have you ever thought of becoming a Catholic?"

Now, how many times have you asked that question of others? For when you do, when accompanied by prayer and sacrifice and true friendship, you may find yourself an instrument of the Holy Spirit for the conversion of great Catholics who will change the world.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A POPE'S ANSWER TO THE PROBLEM OF PAIN

by Christopher Kaczor

He was in third grade when his mother died; his only sibling, an older brother, died three years later; he discovered his father dead on the floor in their apartment. Karol Wojtyla was an orphan at twenty. Nor were his troubles were not limited to the loss of his whole family. The Nazis overran his country, and he did hard labor in a stone quarry. During the Nazi rule, many of his friends were killed, some in concentration camps, others shot by the Gestapo for the crime of studying for the priesthood. He was run down by a German truck and nearly died.

When the Nazis finally left his beloved Poland, he and his countrymen again came under the rule of a dictator when the iron boot of Joseph Stalin replaced that of Adolf Hitler. Later in life, his beloved Church was torn apart by the storm that followed the Second Vatican Council. At sixty, an Islamic assassin shot him in his own front yard, and he nearly died again. As an old man, he suffered from debilitating Parkinson’s disease that rendered him immobile, distorted his physical appearance, and finally took his ability to speak. Pope John Paul II knew about human suffering.

Yet, as was evident to all who saw him, he was a man overflowing with joy. He experienced the mystery of suffering and the affliction endured by every single human person, but he also discovered the meaning of suffering. He had found an "answer" to the problem of pain.

An Inescapable Feature

He explored this theme in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering). Suffering is part of human existence from birth until death, and every human person suffers in a variety of ways: physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. The Bible provides many examples: one’s own death, the danger of death, the death of children or friends, sterility, homesickness, persecution, mockery, scorn, loneliness, abandonment, remorse, watching the wicked prosper while the just suffer, the unfaithfulness of spouse and friends, and the misfortunes of one’s homeland (SD 6). Suffering in one form or another accompanies each of us every day. It is an inescapable feature of human existence.

Suffering naturally leads to questioning. Why do I suffer? Why do others suffer? How can suffering be overcome? Is there any meaning to suffering? To find an answer, John Paul turned to revelation:

In order to perceive the true answer to the "why" of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the "why" of suffering, as far as we are capable of g.asping the sublimity of divine love. In order to discover the profound meaning of suffering . . . we must above all accept the light of revelation. . . . Love is also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the cross of Jesus Christ. (SD 13)

For John Paul, the story of Jesus Christ is the story of humanity. Every human life is a question, and it is the Lord who answers the question. Therefore we must look to Christ to understand the meaning of suffering. But our understanding of God is fragile and incomplete, because we are not capable of comprehending pure love and goodness. It follows, then, that our understanding of suffering cannot be definitive. This is especially true when we are dealing with suffering in its subjective dimension. Words fall far short when we are undergoing suffering, and reasoning cannot remedy the profound sense of the offensiveness of suffering.

In looking for an answer to the "problem of pain," the Pope avoided reducing all suffering to a single justification but looked at various.aspects and meanings of suffering. Reducing suffering to a single solution does not do justice to its complexities.

Charity

Sometimes suffering makes an important good possible. If God eliminated that suffering, the corresponding good also would be eliminated.

We could say that suffering . . . is present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s "I" on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love that stirs in his heart and actions. (SD 29)
Humility

Suffering can bring us closer to what is good and can draw us away from obstacles to achieving happiness. Pain can prompt rehabilitation, a turning from evil to embrace stronger relationships with others and with God (SD 12). Suffering breaks down that most fundamental of human proclivities: our desire to be God. The atheistic existentialist Jean Paul Sartre wrote: "To be man is to reach toward being God. Or, if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God." The original sin of Adam and Eve was an attempt to reorder the universe so they could determine what is good and what is evil. This is replicated in every human sin. The sinner orders the universe according to his own will and sets aside the will of God. Suffering is redemptive in part because it reveals to man that he is not God, rendering him more receptive to the divine:

To suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self. (SD 23)

Only when we are weak do many of us rely on God and explicitly repudiate our own divine ambitions.

Transformation

History provides many examples of sinners transformed into saints through suffering.

Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. To this grace many saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all that he becomes a completely new person. He discovers a new dimension, as it were, of his entire life and vocation. (SD 26)

It may be that some suffering is permitted by God as a way of waking someone from a dream of self-sufficiency or illusory happiness. Life-saving surgery is painful.

Punishment

Often our sinful actions lead directly to painful repercussions—the drinking binge leads to the hangover, unreasonable anger to injured relationships, laziness to lack of achievement. Suffering can serve as punishment for wrongdoing, a just retribution for personal sins.

The friends of Job sought to universalize this judgment, falsely concluding that all suffering is the direct result of a person’s sin. If Job is punished, they reasoned, he must have sinned against God. But the innocent do suffer:

While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament. (SD 11)
In the New Testament, Christ teaches the same truth by his Passion. The Lamb of God—who is entirely without fault—endured rejection, beating, taunting, flogging, and crucifixion at the hands of evil men. By suffering himself, the Son of God removed the moral stigma from suffering. No longer could it be said that personal suffering always indicates moral failure nor that it is a sign of God’s abandonment or disfavour.

Christ’s Suffering

Christ strikes at the root of our sin and our suffering by overcoming evil with good. Indeed, the suffering of Christ overcomes the worst possible suffering of the human person—permanent alienation from God, the source and summit of all goodness. All suffering in this life—like all happiness—is imperfect, partial, and finite. Even the worst possible human life, spread over the longest spans, comes to an end. Hell does not. It lasts forever. In comparison to the pains of hell, the worst human suffering on earth pales. Jesus saves his people from hell.

The only begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering. In his salvific mission, the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by his obedience unto death, and he overcomes death by his Resurrection. (SD 14)
Jesus saves us from the suffering by entering into it. The physical pain endured by Christ is well beyond what most of us have personally experienced: beaten by soldiers, imprisoned, scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, forced to carry the cross, and finally dying by crucifixion.
His suffering has human dimensions; it also is unique in the history of humanity—a depth and intensity that, while being human, can also be an incomparable depth and intensity of suffering, insofar as the man who suffers is in person the only begotten Son himself: "God from God." Therefore, only he—the only begotten Son—is capable of embracing the measure of evil contained in the sin of man: In every sin and in "total" sin, according to the dimensions of the historical existence of humanity on earth. (SD 17)
John Paul echoes a long tradition, going back at least to the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, that the physical, mental, and spiritual suffering of Christ was the greatest human suffering possible. In addition to the physical pain of the passion, he endured the greatest pain of all: alienation from the heavenly Father caused by the totality of human sin.

Suffering and Salvation

What comes of this great suffering? What is its purpose in the divine plan? From the greatest possible evil, God brings about the greatest good: the salvation of the human family, redemption from pain and suffering for those who do not merit it.

Precisely by means of this suffering [Jesus] must bring it about "that man should not perish, but have eternal life." Precisely by means of his cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. (SD 16)
The suffering of Christ redeems suffering itself and opens up the possibility that the sufferer can share in the redemptive work of Christ (SD 19). The suffering of Christ leads to his glory; so, too, does the suffering of Christians. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account" (Matt. 5:10–11). John Paul wrote:
Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. . . . Christ has accomplished the world’s redemption through his own suffering. For, at the same time, this redemption, even though it was completely achieved by Christ’s suffering, lives on and in its own special way develops in the history of man. It lives and develops as the body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ. It completes that suffering just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ. (SD 24)

The Christian approach to the problem of pain does not imply an indifference to human suffering, and for this reason Christians have always sought to express their faith in charitable works.

Christ’s revelation of the salvific meaning of suffering is in no way identified with an attitude of passivity. Completely the reverse is true. The gospel is the negation of passivity in the face of suffering. Christ himself is especially active in this field. (SD 30)

The works of Christ were to restore sight to the blind, heal the leper, and give food to the hungry. He taught that we should love God and neighbour and gave us the parable of the good Samaritan to illustrate the duty of all Christians to look after the needs of others. The final judgment hinges on our care for suffering people:

Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matt. 25:34-35)
A Reason to Live

Christ’s approach to the problem of pain is not an intellectual answer to an academic puzzle. Not every problem is abstract, intellectual, or academic. Theodicy—reconciling the existence of an all-good God with evil—can be tackled in this manner, but the problem of real pain is concrete, experiential, and personal. Its resolution does not come through words but through the Word alone. As the great Pope put it:

Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ’s saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ. The answer that comes through this sharing, by way of the interior encounter with the Master, is in itself something more than the mere abstract answer to the question about the meaning of suffering. For it is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: "Follow me!" Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. (SD 26)
The author Victor Frankel in his book Man’s Search for Meaning describes his horrifying experiences in Nazi concentration camps. He notes that although all the prisoners were in the same material circumstances—the most horrible imaginable—they did not all react in the same way. Some prisoners killed themselves by walking into electrified fences; others clung to life and even found joy despite the atrocities occurring around them daily. What made the difference? One way to put it is that man can endure anything if he has a reason (logos) to live. Conversely, man can endure nothing if he does not.
A source of joy is found in the overcoming of the sense of the uselessness of suffering, a feeling that is sometimes very strongly rooted in human suffering. This feeling not only consumes the person interiorly but seems to make him a burden to others. The person feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others and at the same time seems useless to himself. The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling. Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person "completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions"; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service. (SD 27)
Christ gives us a reason to live, however much we suffer.

Raised in Seattle, Christopher Kaczor graduated from the Honors Program of Boston College (1992) and holds an M.M.S. (1994) and a Ph.D. (1996) from the University of Notre Dame. He did post-doctoral work in Germany at the Universität zu Köln as an Alexander von Humbolt... more...

Thursday, December 25, 2014

THE FIRST SILENT NIGHT

It’s difficult to imagine today, but there was a time when “Silent Night” was not virtually synonymous with Christmas. As recently as the nineteenth-century, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the English-speaking world.

The Puritans ignored it because the Bible was silent on the topic, while New Year’s was the traditional day of gift-giving in Britain. Carols, though, were popular, and the first significant collection of carols was published in 1833. Though it contained classics like “The First Nöel” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” it, and its 1852 successor, make no mention of “Silent Night.”

That changed with the Victorians. When the German-born Prince Albert married Queen Victoria, he brought many of the traditions of his native land to Britain, including the Christmas tree, gift-giving, and cards. In 1848, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating the holiday around a Christmas tree, and the practice quickly caught on around the country. Victoria and Albert also presided over the revitalization of many carols, setting old words to new music. It is probably during this period that many British people were first introduced to “Silent Night.”

The song we know as “Silent Night” was born as “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” in a small Austrian village in 1818. According to legend, the church organ was broken on Christmas Eve, so the organist and town priest collaborated to create the carol with a guitar accompaniment in order to ensure that the people of Oberndorf did not go without music on the holy night. The song was translated to English by an American Episcopal priest in 1859.

Though Christmas had become a national tradition by World War I, “Silent Night” was far from the dominant song of the season. But by the time of the famous 1914 Christmas truce—100 years ago this Christmas—the carol played a crucial role in bringing about the temporary break in the fighting. All along the trenches, two sides started singing carols at each other. After the musical icebreaker, some of them met in No Man’s Land, exchanged presents, and played makeshift soccer games.

Legend has it that “Silent Night” was the only carol the two sides had in common, but in reality the Germans were much more familiar with the carol. They were the ones who most frequently sang “Stille Nacht,” while the English responded with a variety of tunes, from “Good King Wenceslas” to “The First Noel.” One rifleman, Graham Williams, wrote later that the Christmas truce “was actually the first time I heard this carol [“Stille Nacht”], which was not then so popular in this country as it has since become Williams was not alone in his unfamiliarity with “Silent Night.” Robert Graves called the carol “Stilly Nucked” in his 1962 short story, “Christmas Truce,” suggesting that it was relatively unfamiliar to the soldier-protagonist as well.

The two sides bounced carols back and forth until “O Come All Ye Faithful” united them, since the Germans knew the words in Latin. “And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing,” wrote Williams “two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” Christmas music in general took off in the two decades after World War I, coinciding with the rise of radio and the music industry. Bing Crosby, whose Christmas album is one of the most popular of all time, first recorded “Silent Night” in 1928. In the almost nine decades since, the song has been recorded and re-recorded by countless artists. Time magazine found that “Silent Night” is by far the most recorded carol in America since 1978, outstripping runner-up “Joy to the World” almost two to one

A 2010 study showed that the same applied to Britain. Of the top 10 highest-selling Christmas albums of all time, no less than seven feature the song. (Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand are the only two artists who passed.) In 2011, UNESCO declared “Silent Night” part of our “intangible cultural heritage,” but 100 years ago, it wasn’t nearly the cultural fixture it is today. Since it’s humble origins in an Austrian village almost 200 years ago, the song has come a long way, featured on countless recordings and helping to bring together nations entrenched in the bloodiest war in modern history.