O Holy Night
Selected Texts – Advent
Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 23, 2018 (am)
God uses fallen, broken, sinful people to proclaim His power and glory, His presence and great salvation, to this desperately needy world. He’s called you and me to proclaim His power and glory, His presence, and His great salvation, and yet we know, we feel, our weakness in that calling. We can even believe, often, that our weakness is greater than God’s power to overcome it—that as great as His power is, if we were to proclaim it to those we meet we may not be able to explain it well, or say it rightly, or defend it convincingly. How often does that thought come to our minds and to our mouths when an opportunity opens in front of us to bear witness to the gospel, and we let it pass unseized?
And it’s not just in spreading the gospel that we can believe our weakness is greater than God’s power and glory. We can also believe it, for instance, in a financial situation like we’re in as a Church right now. If we can’t see and understand and explain how God is going to meet our need, supply what we lack here at the end of the year, we can actually doubt whether He’s able to do it! So, again, our weakness, our need, seems greater to us than His strength; it outweighs His power, outshines His glory.
We’re coming to the end of a year, and we’re on the cusp of a Church-wide, area-wide opportunity to proclaim the power and glory of God displayed in His gospel. We’re also on the cusp not only of needing to see a significant year-end offering come in (and it is coming in, praise the Lord!), but to see giving become more regular in the new year. We could really use a reminder that our God can display His power and glory even through weak and doubtful, fallen and flawed creatures like you and me. And I believe we’ll hear just that in the story of a deeply loved Christmas carol, O Holy Night.
But we’re not just helped by hearing a sweet, heart-warming story. We’re helped as that story presses us to call out to the true and living God in prayer, and to pray in faith, believing He’ll answer, knowing He’ll answer! So, that’s what we’re going to do today. After we’ve been reminded of the amazing power and glory of God that’s celebrated in this song, we’re going to take an extended time for personal prayer, aided by the song itself: we’re going to pray individually but in concert, together, that our Father will work through us in the days ahead and into this new year to make known His power and glory through our lives of worship and service, and through our [proclamation] of the life-changing truth of His gospel.
Let’s walk through this story in three steps.
Evidences of the Beloved Status of ‘O Holy Night’
This may be the easiest point I make this morning. None of us really needs to be convinced that O Holy Night is among the favorite carols of Christmas both inside and outside the church, to Protestants and Catholics, believers and unbelievers. Every performer wants not only to sing it, but to record it! It’s one of those songs that becomes a signature piece for all different styles of artists: Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Mariah Carey, Sufjan Stevens…. And it’s just as popular among instrumentalists. So, its melody and harmonies are just as captivating as its lyrics—very rare!
And that has been the case for a very long time. Reginald Fessenden was a Canadian pastor’s son born with a gift for technology and engineering. He owned hundreds of patents during his lifetime, but he is most known for modifying a telegraph device to transmit the human voice. He demonstrated the viability of his device with the first known broadcast over the airwaves—Christmas Eve, 1906. Radio was born with his reading of the Christmas story from Luk.2 followed by his playing O Holy Night on the violin.
The story is also told of a French soldier during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 who halted the fighting on Christmas Eve by stepping out of his trench, unarmed, and singing all three verses of Cantique de Noel—that’s what O Holy Night is titled in France, where it was written (that’s also the hymn tune). Evidently this expression was answered by a German soldier who sang a carol written by Martin Luther. And the result was a spontaneous, Christmas-Day cease-fire (Collins 136).
It is deeply loved. But how did it jump the ocean from France to the US? That’s where we really begin to see…
Evidences of Providential Presence with ‘O Holy Night’
If we look back to the time and place when O Holy Night was written, we see an instantly warm reception that fore-shadowed what we’ve seen here on the western shores of the Atlantic. It was first sung by opera singer, Emily Laurey, at the midnight Christmas Mass in Roquemaure, France, in 1847 (Scott 89). She was a friend of the composer, Adolphe Adam, who was possibly Jewish (Collins 133, cf. Jensen). And he was a friend of the poet, Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant, but a lawyer and eventually the Mayor of Roquemaure. He’d been invited by the parish priest to write a poem for the Christmas service, even though he rarely attended church!
So, get this straight: one of the most beloved Christmas carols in the Protestant church is a biblical-historical-theological reflection on the birth of Christ written by an unbelieving Catholic, and set to music by one believed to be Jewish!
But it doesn’t end there! Cappeau’s poem was translated into English in 1855 by John S. Dwight, a native of Boston and a well-known music critic. He fell in love with Cantique de Noel when he first read it in its original French (Collins 134). So, he’s the one who crafted the English words we love—the grand charges to fall on your knees in worship of the newborn Christ, to behold your King and [bow] before Him, to praise His name forever and proclaim His power and glory evermore! But Dwight was a Unitarian, and a Transcendentalist! He graduated from Harvard College and Divinity School, and tried for a while to pastor a church in Northampton, MA (D. L. Moody’s hometown!), but he got sick every time he stood before the body (Collins 134). And that’s when he turned toward music!
So, add to the unbelieving poet and possibly Jewish composer a Unitarian translator, who wouldn’t have believed Jesus was fully God, the second Person of the Trinity in flesh! Now you begin to understand why I suggest a Providential presence with this song! How else could it have given joyful voice to Christian worship and Christmas celebration for as long as it has except by the direct enabling of God?
But even so, we still shouldn’t miss the…
Evidences of Flaws and Failings in ‘O Holy Night’
As rich and moving as the English lyrics are, in some cases they’re different enough from the original to suggest that Dwight was just inspired by Cantique de Noel to compose his own carol! But that goes too far. He did add theological flourish in some places, but in others he actually muted some richer wordings in the original French. For example:
Where we sing the theological blurry words:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear’d and the soul felt its worth, (whatever that means!)
A literal translation of the French actually reads:
To erase the stain of original sin,
And to end the wrath of His Father. (Scott 90)
And where we sing:
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!
The French actually reads:
The King of kings was born in a humble manger,
O mighty ones today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer! (Scott 90)
I could give more examples. For instance, are we really led by the light of faith serenely beaming to belief in Christ, or by the sovereign grace of God? And what are glowing hearts? Perhaps that’s their state in Christ, but perhaps that’s the Unitarianism. And here the French is no better. Also, Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother—Dwight loved this like; he was an Abolitionist! But it always draws Social Gospel advocates. The point is: in both French and English we can see biblical and theological [weaknesses] that easily allow misinterpretation even while fully orthodox meanings remain viable (e.g. freedom from slavery to sin is a rich gospel image [Rom.7-8]). And that’s my point: this is an imperfect song crafted by fallen people, vulnerable to misinterpretation, yet it has reliably given voice to worship and celebration around the world and over time, truly exalting the power and glory of God.
And that’s what encourages us today! We’re fallen people too, just like Placide Cappeau and Adolphe Adam and John Dwight. But we’re redeemed by our sovereign God! We’re cleansed by the body and blood of Jesus! We’re saved by God’s great grace through faith!
Yet, we still speak imperfectly. There are biblical and theological [weaknesses] in our words just like in the words of O Holy Night. But our God is still able to speak through us to spread His gospel, defend His truth, and advance His Kingdom! He’s able to enable the worship and celebration of more and more people even through the imperfect expressions of us, His dearly loved children!
And He does! He’s done it for centuries, and we need to trust Him to do it again in our day, through us! We need to ask Him to do it, and seek Him to do it, and keep [knocking] on the doors of heaven until He does do it! We need to call out to Him in every sort of need. And we need to trust an believe He will answer. He’s promised to answer!
Let’s call out to Him now. Let’s ask Him to strengthen our faith through the coming year, to meet our financial need, to pour out His grace upon us to bear evangelistic fruit—to see His gospel save and His Kingdom advance! Let’s ask and seek and knock for Him to enable us to proclaim His power and glory evermore!