O Holy Night
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
One of the more formidable memories of my childhood is attending the Christmas Eve service at the Methodist Church on the corner of 2nd and Pine Streets and hearing my mother sing, O Holy Night. I can’t tell you how happy I was, when I came back to Hope a couple of years ago, to find that the Christmas Eve service has also been – and continues to be – a tradition here at First Pres. And, although I remember my mother’s voice as that of an angel, I don’t think she ever sang the song any prettier than Shelley sang it tonight. Thank you, Shelley!
The words to O Holy Night were written by Placide Cappeau, a French wine merchant and poet. Ironically, he wasn’t a particularly religious man. He’s described as having socialist, republican and secular views. Yet, when asked by a local parish priest to write a Christmas poem, this is what he came up with. That was in the mid-1800s, and it’s inspired us ever since.
The words were set to music in 1847 by Adolphe Adam, a French composer and music critic, known mostly for his ballets and operas. Adam was the son of a music professor at the Paris Conservatory, and it was his father’s greatest hope that his son would follow in his footsteps. But Adolphe was a rebellious child, who preferred to improvise his own music rather than study the works of others. In the conservatory, he settled for playing the triangle in the school orchestra and writing vaudeville songs. He was obstinate to the end. In mid-life, he got crosswise with the director of the Paris Opera and walked out to start his own opera house. It lasted less than a year, leaving him bankrupt for life.
Circumstances not withstanding, Cappeau’s poem, Cantique de Noël, now set to Adam’s music, became an instant success. There’s an urban legend that it was the first piece of music ever to be broadcast on radio. And while that’s been debunked, what remains undisputed is that, for over a hundred and fifty years now, O Holy Night has been one of the most beloved songs of Christmas. And so, for our devotional tonight, I’d like for us to consider the meaning of its timeless message. It begins,
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
I can imagine that, for the folks living in Bethlehem at the time, this night was, for the most part, like any other. Which is to say who would’ve ever thought that the long-awaited Jewish Messiah – the Savior of the World – would come at this particular place and time?
Yet, that’s the way God works – God pours out his blessings of grace and love when you least expect it, wherever you happen to be, without warning, and without a lot of to-do. In which case, who knows? Maybe God has a blessing in store for you – for us – this very night. You never know. The song goes on to say,
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A common image for the sinfulness of the world – and the sinfulness of individuals like us, for that matter – is darkness, and that’s the image we get when we hear these words. This goes along with the stars brightly shining: The darker the night, the brighter the stars. And that, in a word, is Good News for us: The more we know our sinfulness, the more we can appreciate God’s grace and love.
Remember the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair? (Luke 7:36-50) The other guests objected, but Jesus came to her defense. He said that, because her sins were many, she knew the power of forgiveness better than they.
For Cappeau, the world on the night of Jesus’ birth was dark, pining in its sin and error. I like that word, pining. It means yearning, a deep longing for something you don’t have and can’t get on your own. Like forgiveness and love and affection, pining has to do with something you can’t buy or demand, but can only hope to receive as a gift.
And that’s what the Good News of Christmas is all about. The long-awaited Messiah came to earth. God’s promise of salvation was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The power of sin and death was broken once and for all. Our relationship with God was restored, and because of that, the soul felt its worth. Cappeau goes on to write,
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
This echoes what we heard just a minute ago: The more you know your unworthiness to kneel before the Christ-child, the more you’re able to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” There’s no place in the manger scene for those who are arrogant and proud; only those who come in humility and gratitude for God’s amazing grace – folks like shepherds from the fields and magi from the East.
It’s the weary soul that rejoices, not the soul that’s caught up in its own self-importance. This is what Jesus would later tell the religious leaders, who criticized him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He said,
“Those who are healthy have no need for a physician,
but those who are sick.
I came not to call the righteous,
but sinners to repentance.” (Mark 2:16-17)
One of my favorite hymns puts it this way:
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.
Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
It’s in this spirit that Cappeau writes,
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!
Listen: The wonder of Christmas is that the same transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ made known to the shepherds so long ago is available for you tonight. If you’re willing to fall on your knees in humility and devotion to Christ, this night can be, for you, the night on which Christ is born anew in your heart and you are reborn in his Spirit. When that happens, you, too, will be able to sing with Cappeau and share the Good News with others, that …
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!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.