The Broken Organ

If I asked you who Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber were, chances are, you'd likely be stumped. But if I asked you to sing Silent Night, the hymn Mohr and Gruber wrote one long-ago Christmas Eve, I’m willing to bet you could sing all three verses. The circumstances surrounding the birth of Silent Night offer a valuable lesson about trusting God to meet our needs. The setting is Oberndorf, Austria, a tiny Alpine village near Salzburg. It was December 23, 1818, and the new village priest, 26-year-old Josef Mohr, had a problem. The organ in his church had broken down—and the repairman would not arrive until after Christmas. As Evelyn Bence recounts in her book, Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns, the broken organ represented a real crisis. “As planned and practiced,” Bence writes, “the music for the Christmas Eve service fell apart if the organ fell silent. The service—the liturgical highlight of the winter—was in shambles. What to do now?” Mohr had just 24 hours to solve the problem. But that night he decided to put his problem aside for a few hours, while he attended a Nativity pageant put on by a neighboring town. As Mohr watched the amateur actors reenact the simple Christmas story, he was deeply inspired. Afterward the young pastor hiked into the hills to a favorite spot overlooking Oberndorf. As Mohr beheld the lights of the slumbering village below, his mind began filling with the words he would fashion into a poem: “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright.” Mohr quickly made his way home. That night, working by lamplight, he wrote three stanzas to a hymn he titled Stille Nacht. The next morning, Mohr showed the poem to the church organist, composer Franz Gruber. Gruber quickly composed a melody, writing his arrangement for guitar. As Henry Gariepy says in his book, Songs in the Night, “Mohr and Gruber sang their hymn that Christmas Eve to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar and a choir of young girls... little could the simple worshipers imagine the miracle of song taking place... that night. It was reminiscent of a birth, centuries before, that also took place in the humblest of villages, ultimately to have an impact upon the whole world.” When the organ repairman arrived he was so taken with Silent Night that he asked for a copy. He spread the hymn throughout neighboring villages. Folksingers carried Silent Night across Austria’s borders and around the world. The broken organ that had caused Mohr so much anxiety led directly to the creation of the most beloved Christmas carol of all time. It’s a reminder that—as Paul tells us in Philippians—God will supply our every need according to His riches. And that includes the need for Christmas music when the organ breaks down. Do you and I have the faith to trust God to meet our needs—even when disaster threatens? Jacob Mohr and Franz Gruber did. And ever since, their last-minute hymn has glorified the "holy infant, so tender and mild."


Chuck Colson


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