I’m biased. This is my favorite Christmas song. Period.
Maybe it’s because it resonates with my heart like none other. Maybe it’s because the lyrics pound my mind as I read the news. Maybe it’s because of the beautiful theology of our Savior woven throughout. Maybe it’s because I deem David Phelps vocal rendition of this song to be one of music’s greatest masterpieces (don’t worry, I’ve included the link at the bottom of this post). Whatever the reason, this is the Christmas song I gladly play on loop year-round (don’t hate me).
When you read the headlines news of our world over 2017, it sounds like a broken record (yes, terminology from the 1970’s…a decade I never experienced).
Another suicide from bullying.
Another mass shooting at a church, concert, or college.
Another nuclear war threat.
Another ISIS attack.
Another sexual abuse scandal.
Another race-motivated assault or murder.
And then the music starts.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees, O hear the angel’s voices, O night divine, O night when Christ was born.”
Hopelessness is primarily the product of being preoccupied on the possibilities of man’s wickedness rather than recognizing the promises of a faithful Father. Christmas reminds us of that love.
France in the 1840’s wasn’t drastically different than today’s world. To give you an idea, “Les Miserables” takes place in France in the decade prior. As this song was penned, France was only two months away from the Revolution of 1848 and already, the signs were evident that it was coming…a revolution not unlike Egypt’s Arab Spring of 2011.
Christmas was coming, and a local priest in Paris needed poem for the Christmas Eve service. Knowing Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, the commissioner and inspector of wine for a town outside Paris, was a gifted poet, the priest petitioned Cappeau to write something for the night. An interesting request seeing Cappeau rarely graced the Catholic church.
On a bumpy carriage ride into France’s capital, Cappeau spent some time meditating on Luke’s account of Christ’s birth. Picking up the pen, he began to write his now-famous words he titled “Cantique de Noel” (Song of Christmas). By the end of the ride, the poem was finished. Written in French, the words reflect a deep theology lost in English (translation below is my own)
Minuit, chrétiens, (Midnight, Christians!)
C’est l’heure solennelle (It’s the solemn hour,)
Où l’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous (Where the God in flesh descended to us.)
Pour effacer la tache originelle (To erase the original stain,)
Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux. (And to stop the wrath of His Father.)
Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance (The entire world winced with hopelessness,)
En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur. (On that night that gave them a Savior.)
Peuple à genoux, (People, on your knees,)
Attends ta délivrance! (Wait for your deliverance!)
Voici le Rédempteur! (See your Redeemer!)
Recognizing it would be more effective as a song, the irony gets more intense. He asked a well-known composer, Adolphe Charles Adams, a Jew (who wasn’t overally pumped about helping a celebration for a Messiah they had rejected). Adams composed an original score and three weeks later, the song was performed on Christmas Eve.
With speed, the song took off across Europe and across the waters and into even the political scene of the United States. An American writer, John Sullivan Dwight particularly took delight in Cappeau’s second verse. With slavery rampant and the Civil War quickly approaching in the USA, this song found great favor in parts of North America and became an anthem of freedom. “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.”
At the same time in France, the Catholic church decided that this “Cantique de Noel” was completely “unfit for religion” and banned the song for decades, partially due to Cappeau’s political positions and Adam’s Jewish positions. But this masterpiece was far from buried and today reigns as a preeminent song of the season.
As December is upon us, the words are still equally appropriate. Still, our world lies in sin and error. Still the soul longs to feel its worth. Even today I read of a ten-year old girl in Colorado that committed suicide after being bullied. Today it was announced that North Korea’s inter-continental ballistic missiles can reach Washington D.C. Today I read of more hidden sex scandals. But today I also read, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.”’So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:4-7)
Good news. The Savior who came to Bethlehem is coming again. Wickedness will not reign. Worship can be our response. “Fall on your knees! Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever, His power and glory evermore proclaim.”