A Bit of History:
For those that would prefer it, there is an audio track of this blog post. Don’t forget after listening to skip to the end of this post to play the recording of the Carol from Matt and Sharon.
For a popular Christmas song, this carol has something of a bizarre history.
In the town of Roquemaure in France in 1847, the parish priest asked poet Placide Cappeau to write a Christmas poem, to celebrate the renovated organ. Cappeau made a good job of it despite being an atheist(!) and he asked the composer Adolphe Adam (known for the ballet Giselle) to write the music.
Then in 1855 it was translated into English by a Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight.
It says something about the goodness of God, and the power of the message of Christmas, that the result is a song that we can sing with faith and celebration.
If you are interested in the history, and want to compare the translation to the original there’s a Wikipedia article which gives the French words, a literal translation, and Dwight’s version.
For now though – let us go on and look at the carol itself.
Oh Holy night!
What Bible references can we find?
Mostly it is poetic imagery celebrating the birth of Jesus, rather than direct bible quotes, but we can pick up some references.
The first verse mainly reminds us of the night the angels appeared to the shepherds in Luke 2, although the line “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,” brings to mind the verse from Isaiah.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”Isaiah 9:2-3
The chorus, continuing with the angels, reminds us that people encountering an angel generally fell to their knees.
It also of course points us to the great verses in Philippians
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,Philippians 2:10-11
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is the Jesus whose birth we celebrate
particularly at Christmas time.
Note: Dwight actually put a different chorus with each verse, but we generally just sing this one.
The second verse takes the light of the star leading the wise men to Jesus in Matthew 2.
It uses that as an image of our being led to Jesus by the light of faith.
The third verse moves on to the consequences of Jesus’ birth. It is good to remember that he IS more than just the baby in the manager.
There’s an interesting historical reference in the third line
“Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother.”
Now in America at that time, leading up to the Civil War, slavery was a big issue and the Unitarians were ardently against it. Dwight clearly wanted to make his point – and it fits. Both spiritually and physically, Jesus came to free slaves.
The unsung final lines
The last chorus in Dwight’s translation has the lines
“Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,the final (not usually sung) chorus of Oh holy night
His power and glory evermore proclaim”,
This again has echoes of Philippians, which is a verse worth quoting again
… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:11
Despite the strange origins this song proclaims Jesus’ birth and mission.
I encourage you to listen and to sing along with faith!