O Holy Night

O holy night! the stars are brightly shining;

It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope–the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!

O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

O night, O holy night, O night divine!

 

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,

With glowing hearts by his cradle we stand.

So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,

Here came the Wise Men from Orient land.

The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,

In all our trials born to be our Friend.

He knows our need– to our weakness is no stranger.

Behold your King, before him lowly bend!

Behold your King, before him lowly bend!

 

Truly he taught us to love one another;

His law is love and his gospel is peace.

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;

Let all within us praise his holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise his name forever!

His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

 

The carol O Holy Night comes to us from a most unexpected trio: an atheist, a vaudeville composer, and an abolitionist. (I promise this is not the start of a joke where they walk into a bar together.)

It all starts with Placide Cappeau, a French wine merchant who wrote poetry in his free time. Although Cappeau was known in his community for his objections to religion in general and priests in particular, the local parish priest was determined to use Cappeau’s poetic gift. When the church organ was renovated in 1847, Father Petitjean convinced the avowed atheist Cappeau to write a Christmas poem. After reading the gospels, Cappeau wrote Cantique de Noël, six stanzas of reflection on this holy night.

It might have all stopped there as a poem if a composer of vaudeville and opera music, Adolphe Adam, had not gotten involved. The poem was set to music, and it’s no surprise that a composer used to opera singers would write music with such a complicated melody. It became beloved in France, even though the Catholic church tried to ban it when Cappeau’s atheism was discovered. Cantique de Noël spread through Europe and eventually made it to America, still in French.

This is where the abolitionist comes in. John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister and avid musical critic, lived in Boston. In 1855, he encountered Cantique de Noëli, still in its original French. Dwight was touched by the lyrics, especially what became the English third verse. Dwight recognized, as Cappeau had, that the Jesus we meet in the gospels is determined to bring freedom from oppression and dignity to the downtrodden. Dwight knew that the love of Jesus Christ was enough to overcome even the greatest injustice. Once translated into English, O Holy Night became popular, especially with abolitionists working to outlaw slavery around the United States. Its anti-oppression message may continue to be deeply meaningful today to victims of trafficking, abuse, and exploitation.

Thanks to this unlikely trio of men, we have a beautiful carol, one that not only tells us the Christmas story as the Bible does, but one that reminds us that the babe in the manger came to change our world for the better. Through Jesus Christ, we have love, peace, community, and forgiveness. We have a friend who knows our weaknesses. We have hope for our weary world.

Dear Jesus Christ, born this holy night, prepare us to kneel before your cradle. Bring your law of love and your gospel of peace into our lives as you brought them into the world so many years ago. May we follow your chain-breaking example so all the world joins in the chorus of praise. Amen.

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