Silent Night at Gunpoint

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December 25, 2018 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause

December 25, 2018
Luke 2:1-14
Fr. George Smiga

Janos Varkony was fleeing for his life. It was 1956. As a student at Budapest University, Janos had participated in the October revolution that had attempted to overthrow the communist Hungarian government. The revolution failed. Two days before Christmas, Janos was told by a close friend that his name appeared on the government’s execution list and that police would soon be arriving to take him away. His only hope was to cross the border into Austria. But he knew that that border was carefully guarded by police with instructions to capture and kill anyone who would attempt to escape.

Nevertheless, on this Christmas Eve, Janos found himself making his way through the frozen grain fields toward the Austrian border. He carried with him only a few things: a pistol tucked in his belt, some money, and a silver cross on a chain. The cross had been given to him by the friend who had warned him to escape the city. The cross was an unusual item for Janos to be carrying, because growing up in communist Hungary, he considered himself an atheist. But as he made his way through the snow on that Christmas Eve, his thoughts went back to the last Christmas that he could remember. He was a child, the year before the communists came.

In Hungary, there is no tradition of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, all the children of every household placed candles in the windows of their houses to greet an angel who is to come from heaven. When the angel descends, the church bells ring and all the children together sing “Silent Night.” In those days you could hear their voices floating throughout the cities and the countryside.

As Janos made his way toward the border, he saw no lights in the windows and heard no music in the air, because these things were now forbidden. But he began to hum to himself the melody of that childhood carol as he made his way through the fog. When the fog cleared for a minute, he saw the Austrian border. He was close, close to freedom.

Suddenly a dog jumped on him and held him down in the snow. Two guards stepped out of the fog carrying machine guns. They pointed them at his stomach. “Get up,” they said. Janos got up. “Empty your pockets.” Janos handed over his gun, his money, and the silver cross. Then one of the guards said to the other, “Take him to the guard house. I am going back to the watch tower.” So, the guard who had been so directed placed his gun in Janos’s back and said, “Move.” They walked together for a while in silence.

Suddenly the guard said, “Stop,” and he dangled in front of Janos’s face the silver cross, saying, “Take it.” Janos did not understand, but he took it. Then the guard said, “Do you remember the song that the children used to sing to greet the angel when the bells chimed?” Janos said, “I do.” “Will you sing it with me?” the guard said. They did. Janos was amazed at how easily the words of the song came back to him. What an improbable scene: an atheist refugee and a communist guard together singing “Silent Night” at gunpoint. When they had finished, the guard seemed to be listening for something. Then he said, “Sometimes on Christmas Eve I still think I hear the sound of children singing and church bells. I say nothing, but I think you might understand.” Then he said, “In a minute, I am going to shoot my gun into the air. Run as fast as you can, and if you make it across the border, help the children to sing ‘Silent Night.’” When the gun exploded, Janos ran as fast as could until he was safe in Austria. Every Christmas since then, he sings “Silent Night” with his family. He is convinced that it was as the two of them sang together that song on the cold December night, that the guard decided to let him go.

The religious songs of Christmas are expressions of faith, and not simply the faith that Jesus was born 2000 years ago. They express a faith that because of that act of love by God, people can change, and the world can change. If God loved us enough to give us Jesus, then all things are possible, even in this violent and corrupt world.

I would like to end my homily by inviting you to sing “Silent Night” with me. You can find it in the centerfold of your worship aide. We will only sing the first verse. But I ask you that as we sing this hymn together, let it be a prayer, a prayer for hope for our world. Let us sing it for all the children born this year into poverty who will never receive a formal education. Let us sing it for refugee families seeking a place to begin a new life. Let us sing it for victims of sexual abuse, for those who are dying and those close to despair. And as we sing it, let us pray that God’s grace may soften our prejudice, our partisanship, our pride, so that knowing how much God loves us, we might find a way to extend mercy and peace to one another.

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
Sleep in heavenly peace

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