"O Holy Night!": The Story

December 3, 2018

One of my favorite Christmas carols is "O Holy Night." There's something almost majestic about the words, something regal about the melody. This one hymn can take me again and again to kneel before the manger and inspire awe in me.

But this carol's beginnings were not glamorous.

A French priest asked Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, a winemaker, to write a poem for Christmas mass. De Roquemaure was never a very devout Christian, but took on the request as a challenge. During a long carriage ride, he began to meditate on the Luke 2 account of the birth of Christ and was filled with awe. As he descended from his carriage a few hours later, the words were complete.

But de Roquemaure was not satisfied. Such majestic words demanded a melody. He turned the poem over to one of his musical friends, Adolphe Charles Adams.

Adams was a Jew who did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but he was compelled by the beautiful lyrics to write a melody fitting them. Only a few weeks later, the song was sung at Christmas Mass. "Cantique de Noel" enjoyed instant success among the French. Not long after, however, de Roquemaure left the church and it was discovered that Adams was a Jew with no belief in the Messiah.

"How can anything good come from two unbelievers?" church officials reasoned, and banned the carol from being sung. But it is hard to ban something as elusive as a song, and the French people continued to sing the carol in their own homes.

It might have continued to be this way for a long time, but for American abolitionist and writer John Sullivan Dwight. He was drawn to the words "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."

He translated the hymn from French into our English "O Holy Night," and it was a hit with the American people.

Years later, in 1906, Reginald Fessenden took up his violin and played the carol in what would be the first musical broadcast. Through this, the way we listen to music changed forever.

What a history! This carol was rejected because we limited God to work only through believers. Yet isn't it just like God to use means that we don't expect? Isn't that what the whole story of Christmas? God sent a baby when the Jews were expecting a King. God allowed that baby to grow and suffer and die for crimes He did not commit, when the nation expected Him to overthrow the Romans. God raised Him from the dead when no one expected to see Him again.

The gospel is all about the unexpected. Why can't a simple Christmas carol be unexpected too?


O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O'er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wise men from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we.
His power and glory ever more proclaim!


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