Saturday, December 29, 2012

O Holy Night

The French and German forces were facing off during the Franco-Prussian War. The fighting was fierce, when a lone French soldier jumped out of his trench, unarmed. Both sides stared, astonished, as the soldier started to sing:

     "Minuit, chrétiens, c'est l'heure solonelle 
     Où l'Homme Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous
     Pour effacer la tache originelle
     Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.
     Le monde entier tressaille d'espérance
     En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur
     Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance.
     Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur
     Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur."

     ("Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour
     When the God descends on us as a man
     To erase the original stain (sin)
     And to stop His Father's wrath.
     The whole earth trembles (or thrills) with hope
     In this night which gives them a Savior
     People on your knees, wait for your deliverance.
     Christmas, Christmas, here is your Redeemer
     Christmas, Christmas, here is your Redeemer")

The Frenchman continued on to sing all three verses of Cantique de Noël (French for "Christmas Song", not to be confused with The Christmas Song)

When he was finished, a German infantryman came out of hiding and began to sing Martin Luther's words:

     „Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her.
     Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mär,
     Der guten Mär bring’ ich so viel,
     Davon ich sing’n und sagen will.“ 

     (More or less, "From heaven above, I come forth.
     I bring you good news,
     Of that good news I bring,
     I want to tell it in song.")

Thus began a 24-hour period of peace between the sides, starting that Christmas Eve in 1871.

Back up 24 years to 1847. A parish priest in a small French town needed a poem for his Christmas mass, and he turned to a local poet named Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure. Not a churchgoing man himself, Mr. Cappeau felt honored nevertheless, and used the Gospel of Luke as his inspiration to write a poem while on a trip by coach to Paris. He tried to imagine what it would be like to be in Bethlehem over 1800 years earlier, witnessing the birth of Jesus.

When he finished his poem, Cappeau realized that a poem was not enough. This needed to be set to music. So he turned to his friend Adolphe Charles Adams, a man of Jewish descent. This was particularly awkward for Adams, since, as a Jew, he didn't even celebrate Christmas, nor did he believe that Jesus was the Son of God. However, he humored his friend and set the poem to music. I have to say he did an excellent job of it.

The song was initially popular in France. However, as it declined in popularity, an American writer by the name of John Sullivan Dwight discovered the song and translated it into English. "Minuit, chrétiens" (Midnight, Christians) became "O Holy Night." As Dwight was a strong abolitionist, the third verse was particularly meaningful to him. The song became especially popular in the North during the Civil War, as many Americans sang:

     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 praise in joyful chorus raise we
     With all our hearts, we praise His holy name!
     Christ is the Lord! Let ever, ever praise we!
     His power and glory evermore proclaim!
     His power and glory evermore proclaim!

(Emphasis mine, to show which line was particularly meaningful to Dwight.)

O Holy Night also has the distinction of being the first song in history to be broadcast over the airwaves, on Christmas Eve 1906. 

For more details, you can read Ace Collins' The Amazing Story of 'O Holy Night', which is where I learned the above information.


In English (and in French, though the singable English translation is not literal), the first verse reflects on that night when Christ came to earth as a baby. The world had been waiting for millenia, mired in sin, in need of a Savior. That night finally came, and with a thrill, hope was born. The world rejoiced in its Savior, as a new era began. Fall on your knees and listen to the angels sing! What a holy night!

The second verse (not in the video above) seems to be the story from the perspective of  Cappeau, the observer and poet. They are standing beside the manger "with glowing hearts" to see their baby Savior. Soon, the wise man come "from Orient land" and join them in their adoration. "The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger, in all our trials born to be our friend." He understands our needs and is familiar with our weakness. Bow before Him.

The third verse is quoted above. Christ has come out of love to bring us peace. He will break our chains, since he has taken on the yoke of a slave, and as the Son of God, He is our brother. Another interpretation of that line would be that slaves are just as human as anyone else, and God will break the chains that bind people who He created in His image. In any case, He will put an end to oppression. What can we do but sing hymns and songs of praise? Christ, our Savior, has come. Proclaim his power and glory forever!

I think it puts an interesting twist on it that had never occurred to me before, that Cappeau wrote the poem as he imagined what it might have been like to observe the birth of Jesus so long ago. The first verse remembers what we have come through, the pain and bondage that sin has caused through the years as we have yearned for the prophesied Messiah to come. Now, in the second verse, here we are watching prophecy being fulfilled. All that painful time has culminated into this moment, this holy night when he has finally arrived. The third verse looks forward to when He will victoriously break the chains of sin and death, freeing us from bondage. Jesus fulfilled some of that when He died on the cross and rose again, and He will fulfill the rest when He returns.

Jesus is our Savior! Praise Him! Whatever bondage we are in, He can save us. He has conquered sin and death. As Dr. SM Lockridge so eloquently put it, "That's my King!"

First and third verses:

First and second verses:

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