The Christmas song that always slays me, jolts me out of my secular complacency and reminds me that this is an absolutely sacred moment in the history of mankind we are celebrating here, is the carol, “O Holy Night.”
It is one of those songs that you feel. Not only the music, the melody, the notes, especially that high C sharp that sends shivers up your spine, but you feel the song deep in your soul. You know it is true and right.
The carol was originally written in French in 1843, by poet Placide Cappeau and set to music by Adolphe Adam. The piece was written to celebrate the renovation of a church organ.
Over a decade later, the song was loosely translated into English by Unitarian minister, transcendentalist and abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight. The song became popular in the North, especially among abolitionists for the rousing lines in the third verse:
“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother/ And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
The song gave poetry to the cause against slavery and persecution. We are reminded that Jesus’ redemption is not only universal but specific to the evil of each age.
One of the things that frustrates me about this song is that it is usually sung by a soloist at church. Understandably so. Its wide vocal range makes it one of the most difficult Christmas songs to sing. But when you are the one singing, each line resonates as if it was written just for you and Jesus.
“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,/ It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.”
With these lines, I feel like I am plopped down right on the streets of Bethlehem that night 2,000 years ago. I imagine narrow pebbled streets lined with ancient stone buildings. The biting wind whips through the passageways as I look for the place where the Holy Family waits.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining/ Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
We don’t often think of or sing of sin. I am reminded of how lost I am without Jesus. And at the line, “Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth,” I want to not only sing, my voice cracking with emotion, but raise my hands in thanksgiving and gratitude, praising God for every good thing he has given me.
We all want to know we are worth something in this world. We want to be reminded of his love for us.
“A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices/ For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
And how weary my soul has been. As we emerge out from this pandemic, we see hope again. This hope reminds us of the ultimate hope, the hope of the entire universe — along with pandemics, sin, our separation from God — are all in the person of Jesus.
“Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!/ O night divine.”
At these lines I actually want to fall on my knees as I imagine myself in front of Christ’s manager. This mystery, born of the Father before all ages, grew forth from a teenage womb.
I remember the dark nights during these last two years, when I held my worry so close. I remember even darker nights throughout my life and how Jesus speaks to those intimate places. How Jesus brings redemption, not just to my own life but to all humanity.
This song isn’t just a carol, but a hymn of worship. In these words, we remember how Jesus broke into the stillness of a small town and all of time to descend to a sinful humanity. As we sing it, we pray that he would break into our lives now and redeem what we cannot.
Come Lord Jesus, come.
Gonzalez is a freelance writer. Her website is www.shemaiahgonzalez.com.