The scene is set in the bleak midwinter of 1871. It was during the Franco-Prussian War on Christmas Eve, and the fighting in the war was fierce. That Christmas Eve, a French solider gets out of the muddy trench in which he was taking refuge and walks out onto the battlefield. Both French and German soldiers stared at the man as if he was out of his mind. He lifted his eyes to the heavens and out of the mouth of the Frenchman comes thesong, “Cantique de Noel,” a beautiful song affectionately knownas, “O Holy Night.” In response, a German soldier gets out of his trench and counters by singing, “From Heaven Above toEarth I Come,” by Martin Luther. It was said that the fighting stopped for twenty-four hours and there was total peace as both sides of the battlefield celebrated Christmas.
This story may be more legend than fact, but it’s an incredible story and illustration of the song as we know it today.Underlying the familiar tune is the truth that no one single human is more valuable or human than the other. We all stand naked and powerless compared to the glory of the One who has rescued us from sin and death.
The factual origin of the song, however, comes from a small French town in 1847. A priest approached the famous and accomplished poet, Placide Cappeau (please don’t ask for pronunciation), to write a Christmas poem commemorating theholy day. Though Cappeau wasn’t a faithful churchgoer, he agreed and recruited his friend and famous composer, Adolphe Adam, to put the lyrics to music.
Are you ready for the intriguing and complex part of the story? It turns out that Cappeau later joined a socialist movement and essentially became an atheist. Rumor has it that Adam was Jewish (though there is scholarly doubt that this is the case). TheCatholic Church saw a problem with the writer of the beloved song being a socialist atheist, and the composer a non-Christian Jew, so they banned the song from being sung or played in the church for over two decades!
Songs with the kind of beauty, depth, and popularity that “Cantique de Noel” had couldn’t be stopped by the ban, and the people of France continued to sing the song each year. The song’s popularity soon carried over the Atlantic Ocean. When John Sullivan Dwight discovered O Holy Night in 1855, he was inspired by Christ’s victory over sin, as well as our shared humanity, and he penned additional lyrics in the third verse saying: “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.”You see, Dwight was an abolitionist during the Civil War. His theology of Christ’s redemption of the world coupled with his deep convictions against slavery compelled him to write the third verse, which spread among the North like wildfire. The song “O Holy Night” was sung in churches all over the country and continues to be one of the most popular Christmas songs today.
Do you know what the very first song was that was broadcast live over the radio? Reginald Fessenden, who was taught by Thomas Edison, was an early pioneer of the radio. In December1906, he played a recording of Handel’s song “Largo,” read the Christmas story from the Book of Luke, and then picked up his violin and captivated the world by playing the swooping melody to “O Holy Night.”
Fall on your knees this season
“Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, til’ he appeared, and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope! The weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn! Fall on your knees...”
The captivating words of this song don’t only describe the birth of the Savior, but theycommunicate the longing of the hearts of all humanity. It expresses creation’s desire for the Savior to come once again and restore creation to its intended place in glory (Romans 8:22-24). For us, this song is a wide-open opportunity to pray for Christ to begin his restorative works in our hearts first. From there, we ask that the Lord use his people to bring restoration to the world.
This season, fall on your knees before the Lord. Cherish his immeasurable grace toward you, knowing that you no longer must lay in your sin, but can experience eternal joy before him. Acknowledge him and adore him as King over all the earth. Praise his name for his intention to save all people, regardless of race, gender, language, and nationality. Truly behold the Savior of the world this season.