December 1, 2020 | A Word From Bishop Medley

This nativity display showing Joseph caring for Mary who is in labor, was photographed by Bishop William F. Medley during his December 2019 ad limina Apostolorum visit in Rome. COURTESY OF BISHOP MEDLEY

Silent Night and Joy to the World

Joy to the world.
The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her king.
Let every heart prepare him room.
Let heaven and nature sign.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon virgin, mother and child,
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

“Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” are likely the most popular Christmas carols ever written. (Of course, O Come All Ye Faithful is surely a contender.) Interestingly, the songs engage us in strikingly different ways. Silent Night harkens us to a quiet night in the village of Bethlehem, and often the song is sung in almost a whisper. By contrast, Joy to the World is triumphant and rousing and very typically in Catholic churches is the hymn by which we are sent forth. Even the most determined “non-singer” seems drawn by both these pieces to at the very least hum along, though they appeal to contrasting moods.

Almost without exception both songs find their way into virtually every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship. This makes perfect sense. Worship and song should strive to draw us into particular sentiments and Christmas, as with most major feasts and celebrations, properly invokes multiple nuances and emphases.

Silent Night, we are told, was written by Joseph Mohr, a priest, on Christmas Eve when his church’s organ was broken. It was written for accompaniment on a guitar.

Joy to the World was first published in 1719 by Isaac Watts and was inspired by the cadence of the Book of Psalms. We can all imagine finding such prayerful lyrics alongside Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …”

As Christmas 2020 draws near, most of us are unsure of exactly what the holiday will bring. Will we be able to gather with family and friends? Will we travel or will others travel to be with us? If no one is coming to our houses do we really spend untold hours decorating as usual? Suppose there are again shortages at the grocery stores? Imagine if we could not bake cookies and candies? If we can get to Mass, will there be no choir? For some people Christmas is the only time of the year they sing at Mass because they know and like the carols.  Suppose we cannot sing?

So Christmas 2020 might indeed be memorable – and not for all the good reasons Christmases of the past have been memorable because of special gifts, special people, and special places.

Christians have been observing and remembering the birth of Jesus for more than 2000 years. We know this because of the prominence of the Christmas stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Christmas has not been forgotten in times of wars, famines and plagues on a world-wide scale. Christmas has not been forgotten in years when families have experienced the absence or loss of loved ones.

Maybe your Christmas will not be all that different in 2020. But many others’ will.

Whatever the case, I hope that the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth will find a place in your heart and in your home. And I hope that the longing to “sleep in heavenly peace” will comfort you. And “let every heart prepare Him room and let heaven and nature sing.”

Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro

Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
Contributors |  Riley Greif, Rachel Hall
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