O Holy Night

O Holy Night

by Hether Pflasterer

 
nativity.png

I’ve always been a sucker for Christmas carols and listen with abandon to every moment of seasonal songs from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  I’ve also been known to slip into a post-merry melody slump after the festivities are over, a classic case of Christmas music withdrawals due to holiday over-indulgence.

But there are a few Christmas carols that stay with me throughout the year.  There are a few hymns whose words linger in my mind and encourage my soul to remember the truth about Christmas.  One of the most powerful of these hymns is "O Holy Night".


"There are a few hymns whose words linger in my mind and encourage my soul to remember the truth about Christmas."


I remember the year I first really listened to the words of "O Holy Night", I mean REALLY listened and HEARD the words with my heart rather than just my ears.  It was Mahalia Jackson’s version and I was in the car running errands when I heard it. Tears filled my eyes to the point that I thought I might need to pull over as I heard the simple words,

Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices

Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

There was something in her voice that caused me to hear the song in a new way; I could tell she BELIEVED the words she was singing! Suddenly I could imagine, for the first time, the breathless joy that must have hung in the air as the heavenly hosts proclaimed Jesus’ birth to people who had been waiting for so long.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

I realized this song was about me, a broken and weary soul, in sin and error pining. How had I heard "O Holy Night" for at least three decades and yet not understood the treasured truth it contained? I finally understood the belief behind Mahalia's voice.


"I realized this song was about me, a broken and weary soul, in sin and error pining."


The origins of the song, and its discordant history, are part of what makes it such a beautiful piece.  "O Holy Night", titled "Cantique de Noel" in French was written in 1847 by Placide Cappeau, a French wine merchant and poet.  He was asked by the parish priest to compose a poem for Christmas mass.  

On his carriage ride home he read the Gospel of Luke and immediately wrote the words, imagining himself as a witness in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.  He created for us such a word picture of awe and wonder, we are transported to the hillside, alongside shepherds and sheep, witnessing choirs of angels announcing the birth of Jesus.

shepherds in field.png

"I could imagine, for the first time, the breathless joy that must have hung in the air as the heavenly hosts proclaimed Jesus’ birth to people who had been waiting for so long."


Sweet hymns of joy
in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his Holy name!

Cappeau asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, a Jewish musician, to set the poem to music, creating the hymn we know today.  But since Cappeau had left the church altogether due to his political views, the church banned the hymn citing his departure and Adams’ Jewish faith. However, the song survived despite the ban, passed down over the years outside the church with no need for a hymnbook.

Almost a decade later during the Civil War, John Sullivan Dwight, an American abolitionist, heard "Cantique de Noel" and deeply connected with these words:

Chains shall He break
for the slave is our brother
and at His name all oppression shall cease

He translated this song of hope into English and it quickly became popular with other abolitionists at the time.

For some reason this Advent season I have thought a lot about the power of "O Holy Night".  Understanding the history behind it reminds me that God is always making His Name known and His Gospel story understood.  He uses all of His creation to proclaim the truth from a socialist wine merchant to a Jewish musician, from an American abolitionist to a civil rights activist.

Let all creation praise His Holy Name


"God is always making His Name known and His Gospel story understood.  He uses all of His creation to proclaim the truth from a socialist wine merchant to a Jewish musician, from an American abolitionist to a civil rights activist."


As I was pondering how the words of the song actually accomplished exactly what their author had hoped, I found myself at my son’s high school Christmas concert.  Following his band’s performance, the choir sang, you guessed it, "O Holy Night".  Hearing the words of the beloved song sung by teenaged voices, mingled together with the keyboard,

His pow’r and glory, evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory, evermore proclaim!

I thought about the amazing way God used a man who eventually denied his faith to write a song that would be put to music by a man who didn’t believe in the story the song told!  The song had been banned by the Church, but was preserved by a man who believed Jesus’ coming could set slaves free.  


"The song had been banned by the Church, but was preserved by a man who believed Jesus’ coming could set slaves free."


baby sean.png

After the concert, the lights came on and we waited as students bustled around clearing the stage.  Stepping out into the cold to go home I noticed there were no stars in the sky.  I wondered what the weather was like on that Holy Night; I imagined it was warm and the sky was full of stars, with one star shining more brightly than all the others. We came home and put a star on our Advent Nativity.

Sweet hymns of joy
in grateful chorus raise we

let all within us praise His holy name

"The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it." The unlikely survival of "O Holy Night" through the years testifies to this Gospel truth! I'm thankful that the light of this truth continues to pierce through the darkness of the world. It continues to interrupt me, in moments of despair and in the mundane, and turn my heart toward joy. I pray it would do the same for you this Advent season!