Posted by: rcottrill | November 25, 2013

O Holy Night

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Words: Placide Cappeau (b. Oct. 25, 1808; d. Aug. 8, 1877); English translation by John Sullivan Dwight (b. May 13, 1812; d. Sept. 5, 1893)
Music: Cantique do Noel, by Adolphe Charles Adam (b. July 24, 1803; d. May 3, 1856)

Wordwise Hymns (Placide Cappeau, Adolphe Adam)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The French original of this popular carol was written in 1847. Dwight produced the English translation in 1855. The tune is excellent, building as it does to a climax in the latter half. On the Wordwise Hymns link about composer Adolphe Adam you can hear the incomparable Enrico Caruso sing a restrained and tender version of the carol (in French).

There are some interesting facts about the creation and early use of this hymn. For one thing, there has been some question as to whether Adolphe Adam may have been Jewish. The claim has been made many times–I have repeated it myself in the past–but there is no solid evidence to support it. There may have been a Jewish ethnicity, or some Jewish connection in his earlier ancestry, but we do know that he received a Roman Catholic burial.

As to the writing of the text, in a real sense, the song was made to order. In 1847, a local Catholic priest approached the mayor of the French town of Roquemaure with a request. The mayor, Placide Cappeau, also a wine merchant in town, was certainly not known for his piety–or even for his church attendance. But he was an amateur poet, and the cleric asked if he would write some verses to be used at Christmas that year.

If the mayor was surprised to be given this assignment, we’re not told. However he set to work, using the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel to guide him. The result was a poem called Cantique de Noel (Hymn of Christmas). Thinking the poem might also work as a song, Cappeau approached a classical composer he knew, Adolphe Charles Adams, who quickly set the words to music.

John Dwight, who translated the carol into English, was a Unitarian–a group that does not believe in the deity of Christ. But he thought the song suited the abolitionist sentiments of the northern States, during the Civil War period. The third verse seemed to speak to this issue directly with its promise, “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother / And in His name all oppression shall cease.”

And there is an interesting postscript to this story. The year was 1906, when Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932) planned to make the first ever radio broadcast to demonstrate his apparatus. It was Christmas Eve. What would be suitable content for the historic program? He chose to read the Bible passage in Luke describing Christ’s birth. Then, taking up his violin, Fessenden played the first song ever heard over the air waves, O Holy Night.

As to the message of the lyrics, CH-1 says the night of Christ’s birth was “holy” (set apart as something unique and special). He came into a world languishing in “sin and error,” and brought the dawning of new hope. That is reflected in the angelic message to the shepherds: “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’” (Lk. 2:10-11).

CH-2 considers the visit of the wise men (Matt. 2:1-11). They were led to the newborn King, not only by the star but, as Cappeau poetically describes it, by “the light of faith.” In describing Christ as King of kings (cf. Rev. 19:16) and “our Friend” (cf. Jn. 15:15), the author nicely highlights both the supreme majesty of the Son of God, and His loving condescension to meet our need. “The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger.” In fact, “He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8).

CH-3 speaks of a law of love and a gospel of peace. Both of these are themes connected with the coming of Christ. The angels announced God’s provision of “peace on earth,” through Christ (Lk. 2:14), a peace with God through faith in the Saviour (Rom. 5:1). As to the law of love, when the Bible calls upon us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) it is likely referring to the words of Jesus:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).

For the gospel of grace, for the good news of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ, the One now exalted to the Father’s right hand in “power and glory,” the One who was born into this world so long ago deserves our eternal praise. “Let all within us praise His holy name,” with “sweet hymns of joy.”

CH-1) O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

1) Have you used this as a congregational hymn at Christmas? (Was it effective?)

2) How have you, your family, and your church, been able to get past the empty sentiment and commercialism of the season, and focus on the real meaning of Christmas?

Wordwise Hymns (Placide Cappeau, Adolphe Adam)
The Cyber Hymnal


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