Christmas is my favorite time of the year. Yes, I know it is for many (or at least we say that) – but for me it really is. But even with all of the anticipation, I’m still a purist and want to wait for the season to arrive for things like not playing actual Christmas music or wanting to see Christmas commercials on TV until after the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And yes, it bugs me that the big stores put their Christmas stuff out before Halloween these days, when you used to wonder why you’d see it just before Thanksgiving! But this year I’ll have to admit that I was ready very early for the joy that comes with Christmas – and I broke a few of my rules when it came to those traditions. I’m chalking it up on such a long political season that just put such a damper on the country, added to working a ton of overtime to make things work. Whatever the reason, I was eager to experience that Christmas “magic” earlier than normal.
Even with my strictness about most things surrounding Christmas, one thing you’ll hear from me throughout the year is Christmas carols! Well, not me SINGING them, but WHISTLING them. There is just something fun about whistling a Christmas carol! I don’t know if its the variations in tempo or all the note changes, I’ve just always loved to whistle them and you’ll hear songs like Jingle Bells or Deck the Halls from me as much in the month of June as in December. But again, this year has been a different one… and it’s not just a tune to whistle that has gripped me – but a single phrase from the song O Holy Night that keeps ringing over and over not just in my head, but deep within my spirit.
Before I tell you what that simple phrase is, let me first tell you the amazing history that I’ve discovered about the song itself. In 1847 the priest of a small parish outside of Paris, France commissioned a local poet named Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure to write a poem for the Christmas mass. Placide was better known for his wines than his church attendance, but was honored to be able to share his talents with the church. While in a carriage, riding the bumpy road into Paris, he got to thinking about the poem and used the Gospel of Luke as a basis for what he would write. By the time he arrived in Paris, “Cantique de Noel” had been completed.
The following is an excerpt from an article on Beliefnet.com about the song’s origin:
Moved by his own work, Cappeau decided that his “Cantique de Noel” was not just a poem, but a song in need of a master musician’s hand. Not musically inclined himself, the poet turned to one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams, for help.
The son of a well-known classical musician, Adolphe had studied in the Paris conservatoire. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics that his friend Cappeau gave him must have challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything he received from London, Berlin, or St. Petersburg.
As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words of “Cantique de Noel” represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
The song became quickly and widely accepted by the church as a whole in France until some time later when Cappeau left the church all-together and became a socialist. It was then discovered that the music was composed by a Jew, and the Catholic church denounced the song. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed “Cantique de Noel” as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and (unbelievably) its “total absence of the spirit of religion.”
Yet, even though the church leaders tried to eliminate the song, the PEOPLE of the church would not let it go, continuing to sing it on their own. Then a decade or so later an American writer named John Sullivan Dwight translated it into English and introduced it to the church half-way around the world in America. It wasn’t just the Christmas message that stood out to him though – he was an ardent abolitionist and (to quote Beliefnet again), “strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: ‘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.’ The text supported Dwight’s own view of slavery in the South. Published in his magazine, Dwight’s English translation of ‘O Holy Night’ quickly found found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War.”
Back in France, the power of this simple song would not be stopped. Legend has it that on Christmas Eve, 1871, in the midst of horrible fighting between the French and German armies during the Franco-Prussian war, a French soldier climbed out of a trench and began to sing the words to
“Cantique de Noel”. The fighting quieted, and when he was finished a German soldier climbed up and sang his own song in response. This time the song was From Heaven Above to Earth I Come – a song written 300 years earlier by Martin Luther. The story goes that after this took place, all fighting stopped for 24 hours so that men on both sides could honor Christmas Day.
Then some 30+ years later on the coast of Massachusetts, Reginald Fessenden (a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison) did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would. When he finished reading Luke 2, he then picked up his violin and played O Holy Night – and it became the first song played on what would become knows as “public radio”.
So, what is the phrase in this powerful song that has been jumping out at me? It’s the fifth line from the first stanza: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Wow. That line just rumbles around inside of me! And I find that as I try to wrap my head around it, that I realize what it’s really affecting is my heart.
What IS the worth of a human soul??? Sadly we live in a culture that places more value on STUFF than on people, so that may be hard for us to consider. You can get an abortion for sometimes less than what it would cost for an XBox 360 in most states. And unfortunately, horrific events like the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School get us thinking a little too late about the value of life.
But then He appears and it changes everything.
John 3:16 puts it so simply… “For God so loved the World that He gave His only begotten Son…”
And in Philippians 2:6-8 Paul describes the lengths that Jesus went to show us our worth… “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!”
Jesus explained it to us in the parable of the treasure in the field – that when a man discovered it, he hid it, then with great joy went and sold all that he had and bought that field. He gave ALL that he had… holding nothing back. He gave His best. What a beautiful picture of how God pursues you and I, and all of mankind. He gave his all, and He did it joyfully!
That was the great exchange that took place – His life for mine. And while I think that He got the short end of the deal, He thinks differently. He tells me I was worth it… and unbelievably, that I still am – no matter what I do.
Maybe that is what so gripped the heart of a backslidden poet that would cause him to pen such beautiful words. Maybe it’s what stirred in the heart of a young Jew yearning for the appearing of his Messiah, that brought forth such powerful music to accompany those words. And maybe it was the reason that a simple professor some 2,000 miles away and 30 years into the future would want that song to be the first that would ever go out across radio waves.
Whatever the reason, the song says it well – “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ’till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Having that hope is good enough for me.
(Enjoy this powerful rendition of the song by the a’Capella group Home Free)