Thrill of Hope sermon series – #3: O Holy Night

This is the last sermon in my 2014 Advent series looking at some of our favorite songs of Christmas.

SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:39-56

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[e] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Thrill of Hope sermon series
#3 – O Holy Night
Dec. 21, 2014

During Advent we’ve been looking at some of our favorite carols of the season to learn the meaning behind them and how their words, written long ago, still carry deep meaning for us today as we await the Christ child. We learned that “O Come O Come Emmanuel” started as a series of chants in the 12th century and that “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by an American pastor after a trip to Jerusalem. But no Christmas carol has such a varied and colorful history as “O Holy Night,” a history which includes a socialist, a Jew, an abolitionist – sounds like the start of a joke, doesn’t it? – a country-wide ban, and a landmark moment in the history of communication. This story is almost too good to be believed, and yet it has significant for us today. You can find the lyrics printed in your bulletin insert.

It starts in 1847 in a small French town with Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, who had the enviable title of Commissioner of Wines. Placide was not a church-goer, and would eventually leave the church completely to join the socialist movement. But at the time he was a well-known poet, so the local priest asked him to write a poem for the upcoming Christmas mass. Placide decided, probably after a few glasses of wine, that the result was so good it should be made into a song.

So Placide contacted his composer friend Adolphe Charles Adams. Adams had studied at the conservatory in Paris and had worked with ballets and orchestras around the world. Adams was also Jewish, so the words of this song and the meaning behind it were completely lost on him. So on Christmas Eve 1847, a song was debuted at Midnight Mass 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. Of course, it was a big hit.

The song spread like wildfire and quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But then, someone in the church decided to do his homework and learned the sketchy history of the writers, and the song was immediately banned from use. The heads of the French Catholic church deemed the song unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” I wonder which part they thought was the most un-religious? Maybe the line that says, “It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth?”

Even though the church had officially denounced the song, the story is not over. The song was so popular that people kept singing it, and eventually it made its way across the sea to America and into the hands of a writer named John Sullivan Dwight. Dwight felt this wonderful Christmas song needed to be introduced to America, but not only because it told a timeless story. Dwight was a fervent abolitionist, so he 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 with the title “O Holy Night” in a American magazine. The song caught on quickly, especially in the North during the civil war.

But the story is not over. Back in France, the song was still banned but also gaining in popularity among the populace. There’s a legend that on Christmas Eve of 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between Germany and France during the Franco-Prussian war, a French soldier jumped out of his muddy 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 Martin Luther’s Christmas hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The fighting stopped immediately and the soldiers held to a ceasefire for Christmas Day. That story is simply too good not to have happened and demonstrates the power of music to bring peace and hope into our weary, war-torn world.

But the story isn’t over. On Christmas Eve 1906, a 33-year-old professor and former chemist for Thomas Edison named Reginald Fessenden did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airways. What did he say? “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 Luke 2:1-7, the story of the birth of Jesus.

Imagine the reaction of radio operators on ships and wireless owners across the world when their normal, coded impulses were interrupted by a human voice reading the Bible. I wonder if they thought they were hearing an angel speaking! 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. That event solidified the song’s place in history as one of the most beloved, most recorded Christmas songs of all time.

For such a history, the song itself is beautiful in its simplicity. It tells of a night different than all other nights, a night marked as holy. That word “holy” is used 57 times in the Old Testament and 232 times in the New Testament. Both the Hebrew word – qadash – and the Greek word – hagios – mean to set apart, to consecrate, to dedicate. Something that is holy has been set aside for special use. In one of his letters Peter reminds followers of Jesus that we are a “holy priesthood,” that we have been set aside and consecrated to do God’s work. In fact, Jesus’ name in Hebrew means “Yahweh saves,” that  through Jesus God sets us aside to be used for making God’s kingdom known here on earth.

The next line says, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” The soul felt its worth. I love that phrase! What is your soul’s worth? I know a lot of people who think there soul isn’t worth much. They find all kinds of ways to downplay their intrinsic value. They listen to the voices – external and internal – that tell them there’s nothing holy about them. But through Christ’s appearing, our soul has been restored. Our true worth is not defined by what the world says we are or what our critics say we are. Our true worth is grounded in the fact that God sent Jesus to us, that God loves us so much, that our soul is worth so much, that the transcendent God became immanent and dwelt among us. Jesus reminds us that every soul is worth something to God.

The next line may be my favorite line in all the Christmas carols we sing. “The thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices.” I’m sure the world into which Jesus came was weary. Weary of Roman occupation. Weary of religious oppression. Weary of waiting for the promise of the Messiah to be fulfilled. Can you relate? What makes us weary these days? Weary of sitting in mall traffic, weary of waiting in checkout lines, weary of being sick, weary of the stresses of the holidays. But I wonder if that fatigue goes deeper. 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. Just…weary.

What Jesus promises us, the song says, is “the thrill of hope.” I love that! When we are given hope, it is thrilling. It bubbles in us like champagne, it makes us smile and giggle and look forward when we’ve only been looking down. The birth of Jesus signifies an end to all 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. Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! That line is so wonderful, if only because it allows us to say the word “Yonder,” which in my opinion is way underutilized these days. Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! Jesus is no longer yonder! Jesus is here. Hope is here.

But the story isn’t over. What I think makes this hymn different than many others we sing at this time of year is that it not only contains praise, but also a prescription. Placide has left us with marching orders for how we are to respond to this thrill of hope. In the next verse he gives us three tasks to accomplish, which are echoed in the song of Mary which we read today. First, he says, “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace.” If we have been 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 – they were then, we are now – we are called to treat each other with the love and peace Christ has brought us.

But we are to go beyond being respectful and polite, says the hymn. “Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” We aren’t called just to be nice; we are called to work so that others can enjoy the same blessings as us, blessings of freedom and justice. Mary talks about how God scatters the proud and lifts up the lowly. 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? What are we doing to show others the worth of their soul?

Finally, we are called to remember the source of all we are. “Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name.” We are called to praise God, at all times and in all places, because of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. On that night in Bethlehem, Christ came to us. On this Christmas night in 2014, Christ will be born in us. And starting that very night, we are called to let Christ be born through us.

From a socialist wine merchant to a Jewish composer to an abolitionist preacher and across the airwaves. So much has happened that has brought this song to us today. From a teenage unwed mother and a Jewish carpenter in a little Middle Eastern town and across the centuries. So much has happened that has brought this story to us today. But the story is not over, is it? There is a weary world out there in need of hope. There are 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, and people we don’t even know 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 a 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 coming again. Thanks be to God.

Merry Christmas!


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