There is something so wonderful about the songs of this season and how they connect us with the deep spiritual reality of the birth of Christ. While we all know well the story of Silent Night, most people do not know the history of another favorite Christmas song, O Holy Night, a history deeply connected to Christmas Eve.
The story of this song begins in 1847 in a small French town with a man named Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure. Placide was a socialist and not a church-goer, but at the time he was a well-known poet, and the local priest asked him to write a poem for the upcoming Christmas. Placide agreed and once done, decided that his poem was so good it should be made into a song. So he contacted a composer friend Adolphe Adams. But, Adams was Jewish, and was now asked to compose the most Christian of hymns. On Christmas Eve of that year, the song was debuted at Midnight Mass – a song whose lyrics were written by a socialist who left the church and whose music was written by someone who didn’t even believe in Jesus. And, of course, as we know, it was a big hit. But, once church officials learned the history of the writers, and the song was immediately banned from use. The Catholic Church in France deemed the song unfit for church services because of what they called its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”
But, though the church had banned the song, it was so popular that people kept singing it, and eventually it made its way across the sea here to America now into the hands of John Sullivan Dwight who felt it needed to be introduced to America, but not only because it told a timeless story. You see, Dwight, was an abolitionist, and America was in the midst of the Civil War. Dwight strongly identified with the lines: “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.” Dwight translated the song into English and published it. The song caught on quickly, especially here in the North.
Back to France and yet another Christmas Eve, now in 1871. In the midst of fierce fighting between Germany and France during the Franco-Prussian war, a French soldier jumped out of his foxhole, and with no weapon in his hand, lifted his eyes to the heavens and sang the first verse of this song in French. As he reached the end, a German soldier climbed unarmed out of his trench and began to sing the German Christmas hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The fighting stopped immediately and the soldiers held to a ceasefire for Christmas Day.
Finally, one more Christmas Eve. Now it was 1906, and a 33-year-old professor and former chemist for Thomas Edison named Reginald Fessenden, using a new type of generator, spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a person’s voice was broadcast over the airways. What did he say? He said, “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…” The first words ever broadcast over the radio were from Luke, the story of the birth of Jesus. Imagine the reaction of radio operators on ships and radio owners across the world when their normal Morse Code dots and dashes were interrupted by a human voice reading Sacred Scripture. But Fessenden wasn’t done. After he finished reading, he picked up his violin and played O Holy Night – making it the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves.
There is perhaps no hymn more deeply connected to this holy night. Let me speak about just one line in this song that has been coming to me in prayer throughout this season leading us to today: “The thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices.” Isn’t that a wonderful statement – not just hope. The author didn’t merely write, “We’re filled with hope.” No, he paired hope with another very important word – thrill. When we think of hope, I think we usually conceptualize it in very ordinary ways. We think of hope as a kind of optimism (We say, “I hope things will go well”); or a form of positive thinking (“I’m very hopeful about the future.”) Or even a kind of blind faith (“I hope I’ll get through this.”). This can’t be what the song is talking about. Those are all good things, but thrilling? You see, I think the thrill of hope expresses something so profoundly deep that it is life changing. Something so amazing that this kind of hope leaves us different than the way it found us. Of course, the hope of this hymn is the very event we celebrate today – the birth of Jesus. Our hope is not merely a momentary rush or an exciting situation or circumstance. Our hope, our Christmas hope, is in the long-awaited Messiah, born to set His people free – born to set us free. And that is a hope that is truly thrilling!
I’m sure the world into which Jesus was born was weary. “A weary world rejoices.” It was weary of Roman occupation that crushed the people under the weight of this massive empire. Weary of religious oppression that made it difficult and even illegal for people to worship the One True God. Weary of waiting for the promise of the Messiah to be fulfilled – a promise that God had been speaking to His Chosen People for countless centuries by the time of Jesus.
And, I don’t know about you, but I think we too can relate to that notion that a weary world rejoices. After all, we’re weary too. There are so many things that make us weary. We can be weary of the simple things – sitting in traffic, weary of waiting in checkout lines, weary of being sick, weary of the stresses of the holidays. But we also bear a weariness that goes deeper. We can be weary of looking for the right person or the right job. Weary of wondering when life is going to be worth living. Weary of waiting to see if God really cares about us. We can be weary about the state of our world – still so troubled by war and terror and violence; we can be weary about the state of our nation – where racism and discrimination have reared their ugly heads again, where dignity and honor seem to be gone from the public sphere, where greed and power have replaced any desire to feed the hungry, welcome the refugee, reach out to those on the margins. We can be weary indeed.
And into our weariness, what Jesus promises us is nothing short of “the thrill of hope.” I love that! When we are given this hope, it is thrilling. The birth of Jesus signifies an end to our weariness. We don’t have to keep doing things the same way. We don’t have to keep asking the same questions. We don’t have to wonder if our soul is worth anything. Because, “Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!” That line is so wonderful. Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! Jesus is no longer yonder! Jesus is here. Hope is here. And that hope is thrilling!
But the story of this hymn still isn’t over. What makes this hymn different than many others we sing at this time of year is that it not only contains praise, but also prescription. Placide left us with marching orders for how we are to respond to this thrill of hope. This hymn tells us what to do, “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace.” If we are to be given hope by Christ’s birth, then that hope will shine through in how we treat each other. Even when surrounded by hatred and violence we are called to treat each other with the love and peace Christ has brought us, in a way that is noticeable by the world around us.
“Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” We are called to work so that others can enjoy the same blessings as us, blessings of freedom and justice. God’s work is our work. What are we doing to give others the thrill of hope? What are we doing to help others break the chains of oppression, the chains of addiction, the chains of racism and prejudice and indifference? What are we doing to show others the worth of their soul?
My friends, we are filled with the thrill of hope once again because of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. On that night so long ago in Bethlehem, Christ came to us. As we find ourselves on this Christmas night, Christ wants to be born in us again. And when Christ in born in our hearts, He calls us to let Him be born through us for all our world to see.
This wonderful hymn comes to us from a teenage unwed mother and a Jewish carpenter in a little Middle Eastern town. It comes from a socialist to a Jewish composer to an abolitionist preacher and across the airwaves. But this story is not over. There is still one more Christmas (Eve) to tell the long story of this song. This one. Today. There is still a weary world out there in need of hope. There are still countless people out there in need of love and peace. There are our own friends and family who are shackled by grief and depression and loneliness, far from God, far from His love. There are people who are held in bondage by oppressive systems and the power of prejudice. Do we have a song to sing to them, a song about hope? Do we have a story to tell them, a story about the worth of their soul and new and glorious morn? I believe we do. So go yonder and sing it, go yonder and tell it, go yonder and live it! Christ is born again today in us, and His arrival once again fills us with the thrill of hope. Let us tell our story of this holy night.
My friends, may the Lord fill you with peace tonight. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and the thrill of hope that God has promised through the birth of His Son.