O Holy Night

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d 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 divine, O night, O night Divine.

Introduction

Songs have the power to shape us and how we view the world. Songs influence our subconscious feelings and thoughts. Some songs are even able to impact life and death. Take O Holy Night. This seemingly innocuous Christmas carol poetically retells the story of Christ’s birth — the beginning of life. Fittingly, it also saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of men during a fierce battle.

But let’s go back to the start — before the hymn was even written.

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History of the Hymn

The French village of Roquemaure had just finished the construction of its new parish church. To commemorate the event, the parish priest commissioned the local poet and wine commissionaire, Placide Cappeau, to write a poem for Christmas Eve mass. While en route to Paris, Cappeau read Luke’s account of the birth of Christ and composed the verses to O Holy Night by the time he reached the French capital. Cappeau asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to set the poem to music. Three weeks later, O Holy Night made its musical debut in the Roquemaure Christmas Mass.

At first, the Catholic Church welcomed Cantique de Noel — the French title — with open hearts. However, when church leaders learned that Cappeau was a socialist and Adams a Jew, they uniformly denounced the carol as unfit for church services. Despite this decisive action, the common French people loved the hymn and continued to sing it during the Christmas season. Less than ten years after Cappeau wrote O Holy Night, John S. Dwight translated the song into English in 1855.

Though trained as a Unitarian minister, John S. Dwight decided to pursue his passion: music. He began a music column and then founded Dwight’s Journal of Music in 1852. O Holy Night immediately became popular amongst Americans. Back in France, though banned by the Church, the people persisted in their disobedience. And soon, events occurred that forced Church leaders to rethink their stance and reinstate the carol into the hymnal.

Peace in the midst of War

On Christmas Eve of 1871, France and Germany were engaged in a fierce struggle during the Franco-Prussian War. During a pause in the fight, an unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked onto the battlefield, and launched into, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous.” After the soldier sang all three verses from the French hymn, a German soldier emerged from the enemy’s side. Stepping forward, he began singing, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” the beginning of a popular hymn by Martin Luther.

Over the next 24 hours, battle ceased in honor of Christmas Day. Soon after, the Catholic Church re-embraced O Holy Night.

On the Air

Years later, in 1906, on Christmas Eve, Reginald Fessenden–a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison–did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping that his experiment was successful.

Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their typical, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading the opening chapters from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle–hearing a voice somehow transmitted from far away.

Most likely, Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation caused on ships and in offices; he couldn’t have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast–but not before the music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.

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Musicality of the Hymn

You’ll remember from the post on Silent Night, that that Christmas carol came to the United States through John S. Dwight’s Journal of Music. Well, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that O Holy Night was introduced to Americans the same way. In 1858, Dwight translated the French Minuit Chretiens into English as O Holy Night. Not only did Dwight believe that Americans would love this wonderful song, but he also saw a deeper message in the hymn that expanded the Christmas narrative into its broader implications for society and culture.

An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse:

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.

The lyrics supported Dwight’s own view of slavery in the United States. Published in his Journal, Dwight’s translation of O Holy Night quickly found favor in America, particularly in the North during the Civil War.

Original Composition

The original tune is from Cappeau’s friend, the French poet Adolphe Charles Adams. Adams, the son of a well-known classical musician, had studied in the Paris Conservatoire. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics given him by Cappeau must have challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything he received from London, Berlin, or St. Petersburg.

Adams was a man of Jewish ancestry, as well as an atheist. The words of Cantique de Noel represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not consider to be the Son of God. Nevertheless, the musician went to work, attempting to marry a beautiful score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest.

Enduring Presence

Since its first appearance in Roquemaure’s parish church in 1847, O Holy Night has been sung millions of times in churches worldwide. And since a handful of people first heard it played over the radio, the carol has become one of the entertainment industry’s most recorded and played spiritual songs. This incredible work, requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by a non-religious poet, accompanied by a Jewish composer, and brought to Americans as both an abolitionist tool and a retelling of the birth of Christ, has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music ever created.

For some lovely recordings of the song, I recommend you listen to Jussi Bjorling sing the carol in its original French, or if you’d prefer the English translation, check out Martina McBride, Kelly Clarkson, Jerry Butler, or Jennifer Hudson. There are also many orchestral renditions out there of equal beauty and power.

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Theology of the Hymn

Taking the hymn line by line, we discover a whole new depth to this Christmas carol.

A Holy Night

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.

The first phrase describes the night of Jesus’ birth as a holy night. Holy is an apt word, as it means “set apart.” There truly is no other night like that detailed in Luke 2. Whether or not the stars were literally shining brighter is irrelevant–we’ll attribute that line to poetic license. Although we do know that at least one star shone brightly in the heavens, which guided the Magi on their long journey from the east to Bethlehem.

Longing

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.

The Bible clearly relates that, since the Fall in Genesis 3, the world had been longing for the One who would bring redemption from the curse of sin. However, the world did not stop pining (which means to yearn deeply) for complete restoration after Christ’s birth. As Paul writes in Romans 8:20-23,

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

In other words, creation still longs for the second coming of Christ when all will be made new and sin and evil forever destroyed. Not only does the world recognize the significance of the Messiah’s arrival, but so does the human soul. Jesus becoming fully human brings life to Psalm 8 and its description of mankind as rulers of the earth.

Hope

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Hope is an interesting thing. Man can live for a period of time without food, without water, even without air. Man cannot live without hope. Without purpose. Without a transcendent meaning. Why we are here is one of the fundamental questions of human existence. These lines perfectly capture the tremor that must have run through the shepherds, the Magi, Joseph and Mary, even the angels, at the birth of Christ. Finally, the Savior of the world had arrived to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament. After 400 years of silence, God did not speak, but the Word became flesh and dwelt among men.

Worship

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Our response to Jesus’ coming should indeed be one of worship. Christ is both man and God. As we have addressed in many of the previous carols, they all praise and adore the Lord and the birth of the Savior. Something incredible–might we say, miraculous–happened on that Christmas night 2000 years ago. Something occurred to set apart, to make holy, that singular event in history. Just as the angels gave “glory to God in the highest,” we also are invited to glorify our heavenly Father at the coming of the Messiah (Lk 2:14).

“At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Philippians 2:10-11 

Cradle to King

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star so sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.

These lines poetically describe how we remember His birth, but we must also remember that Jesus is no longer a baby, nor is He in a cradle. He is seated at the right hand of God in majesty (Heb. 1:3). These lines also invite us into the experience of the shepherds and the Magi, who were lead by “the light of faith serenely beaming” into the presence of the Messiah. We transcend ourselves and the present time in which we live to participate in a beautiful moment. We are brought into a sacred place of joy and peace, away from worldly strife and toil.

Our High Priest

The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Undeniably, Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19:16). He was also laid in a manger (Lk 2:7). Cappeau skillfully captured the truths of Hebrew 4, that Christ is our High Priest who intimately knows our struggles and temptations and can sympathize with our weaknesses, who is perfect and holy and blameless, and who intercedes on our behalf. Not only does Jesus know our needs, but He also met our need for a Savior. Now the Father supplies all our needs “according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).

Love

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Jesus taught that His people would be known by their love for one another (Jn 13:34–35), and He says that loving your neighbor is the second greatest commandment (Mk 12:30–31). The book of Deuteronomy lays out the law: love God and obey God. Paul sums it up in Romans: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:10).

Historically, the transformative power of the gospel also brought peace between the Jews and Gentiles in the church: “He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near” (Eph 2:17). The Good News continues to transform people, communities, and nations today, bringing peace, healing, and love to the world.

Freedom

Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

As noted, Dwight translated O Holy Night with the desire that it would aid the abolitionist movement in America. It is true that Christianity does oppose any sort of abuse, violence, and subjugation of one’s fellow human beings. In a letter to Philemon, the apostle Paul describes a runaway slave thusly: “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16).

More than physical freedom, though, this hymn speaks to the freeing power of God’s love. 1 John 4:18 reads, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Love brings with it the truth, and “the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). At the first coming, Jesus healed the sick, the lame, the blind, the deaf, cast out demons, raised the dead, fed thousands, cared for the poor and outcasts of society. At the second coming, He will “wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).

Glory & Praise

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.

These lines could have been lifted from Colossians: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (3:16).

Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we;
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

Doesn’t the conclusion of O Holy Night just give you chills? Ah, it’s so beautiful! Christ is the Lord–there is a good, just, holy, loving, merciful, good, faithful God–who brings restoration and redemption to the groaning creation. His power and glory are infinite and infinitely delightful. Let us join the angels’ chorus and give “glory to God in the highest”!

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