Sunday, December 19, 2010

'O Holy Night': Christmas remembered

The mythic Christmas is a white one, but one of my greatest Christmas memories involves weather that was easily fifty degrees above freezing.

It was December 1993. I was teaching middle school English at Cradle of Life Christian School midway between Port-au-Prince and Petionville. I was more than two thousand miles from home, and couldn't help but feel a little yearning for the days when I used to wake up early and rush for the presents under the tree. And I couldn't help feeling a little wistful when I thought about the Christmas Eve services my brothers and I had attended as children.

On this particular evening, those teachers who felt so inclined had gathered for a school Christmas party. It was a hot night, and although there were Christmas decorations and there was a general effort afoot to get into the Christmas spirit, I don't recall much success.

At one point, the power failed, this being Haiti, and our hosts produced kerosene lanterns. It was shortly after this that Jim Muchmore produced a guitar and started leading us in Christmas carols. We sang Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Tammy Lynn Johnston joining me on the tags at the end of each line; and we sang a Christmas song Jim had written about the economic embargo then in effect; and then we sang "O Holy Night."

It was a new song for me, one I knew the existence of but one that I had never actually heard at church as a boy. As we went on, I felt the awe and wonder of the song steal over me. By the time we had finished, the Christmas spirit had arrived, and this hymn had become my favorite Christmas carol.

Like many Christmas carols, "O Holy Night" is a song that is rarely sung in full, and that is a tremendous loss to us all. While carols like "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Adeste Fideles" beautifully express deep and timeless doctrine about Christ, "O Holy Night" expresses a deep truth about the nature of Christ and the gospel he brings:
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
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! O hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break for the slave is our brother;
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise his holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise his name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Written in the 19th century, the song was translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight, who gave it a strong abolitionist message at a time when many in the South were still defending slavery as their God-given right. Not surprisingly, while the song became very popular in the North, it took a while for it to find an audience in the southern states.

While the first verse recounts the wonder of the Incarnation, and the second verse (not shown above) recounts the Christmas narrative of the magi coming to Bethlehem, the third verse recounts nothing. Neither warm nor fuzzy, it instead challenges us to consider the stark contrast between the way we do business and the way Christ does it.

In recent months there has been some fear among some churches about the resurgence of the "social gospel." Some people feel that it neglects the spiritual tones of Jesus' message, and others fear what a faith-driven political liberalism could change.

People are right to be afraid. The gospel is one of the most subversive messages ever proclaimed. Socialism, which has become a byword in America the last two years, is merely an economic system. In the end, socialism wouldn't uproot even a fraction of the American way of life that would be undone if we took Jesus as seriously as we claim we do. The ridiculous salaries and bonuses of Wall Street and corporate CEOs wouldn't just be indefensible, they would be unthinkable. Our entire health care industry would be overturned. Our welfare and immigration rules would be undone, and our foreign policy would be torn to shreds. And that would be just the beginning.

Since I first discovered the song in Haiti, "O Holy Night" has stuck with me in a way no other Christmas carol has. The tune is too beautiful for words, and the words are a challenge to the comfortable life I live. Christ has come, and he has made the slave my brother. Every time I benefit from the debasement or exploitation of another, through the clothes I wear, the food I eat, or by any other means, I am out of step with the call Christ has placed on all our lives.

At this time of year, it is common for Christians in some churches to pray, "You came into the darkness and made a difference. Come into the darkness again." We must always remember that Christ has come, not just into the darkness, but into us as well, and it is up to us now, his people, his body, his partners, to see that the difference is made.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Anonymous said...

I am delighted to be the first to comment. It is a brillant piece & needs to be posted all over America & Europe.

I come from Ireland, the island once known for Saints & Scholars, but sadly today I see it as an Island of Rogues & Robbers. In my city, Limerick, the young women go around like bitches in heat; 57% of births are bastards & are reared in pagan homes. The government encourage this carry on by paying them unmarried allowence & children allowence. The clergy of Ireland (of all denominations) are politically correct. Jesus did dine with sinners, BUT He converted them from their life of sin into godly lives.

Minx McCloud said...

I love ALL the traditional Christmas carols, but "Oh Holy Night" is the only one that can send me into uncontrollable tears of joy.

Sung properly, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. The words move me every time I hear it, and it is the ONLY carol I play during the other 11 months of the year.

Nice piece, Dave.