Derek sang “O Holy Night” beautifully. We are a weary world, but as the scriptures say, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” We are taught on this journey of faith to expect the unexpected because we love and serve a God that does the inconceivable.
Hear this strange and fascinating story of the song “O Holy Night.” In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissionaire of wines in a small French town. Known more for his poetry than his church attendance, it probably shocked Placide when his parish priest asked the commissionaire to pen a poem for Christmas mass. Nevertheless, the poet was honored to share his talents with the church.
In a dusty coach traveling down a bumpy road to France’s capital city, Placide Cappeau considered the priest’s request. Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Thoughts of being present on the blessed night inspired him. By the time he arrived in Paris, “Cantique de Noel” had been completed.
Moved by his own work, Cappeau decided that his “Cantique de Noel” was not just a poem, but a song in need of a master musician’s hand. Not musically inclined himself, the poet turned to one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams, for help.
The son of a well-known classical musician, Adolphe had studied in the Paris conservatoire. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics that his friend Cappeau gave him must have challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything he received from London, Berlin, or St. Petersburg.
As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words of “Cantique de Noel” represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song–which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France–was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed “Cantique de Noel” as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.
Not only did this American writer–John Sullivan Dwight–feel that this wonderful Christmas songs needed to be introduced to America, he saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: “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.” The text supported Dwight’s own view of slavery in the South. Published in his magazine, Dwight’s English translation of “O Holy Night” quickly found found favor in America.
Back in France, even though the song had been banned from the church for almost two decades, many commoners still sang “Cantique de Noel” at home. Legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench. Both sides stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and sang the beginning of “Cantique de Noel.”
After completing all three verses, a German infantryman climbed out his hiding place and answered with Martin Luther’s robust “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”
The story goes that the fighting stopped for the next twenty-four hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas day. Perhaps this story had a part in the French church once again embracing “Cantique de Noel” in holiday services.
Adams had been dead for many years and Cappeau and Dwight were old men when on Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden–a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison–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 airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would.
Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle–hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel.
Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast–but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.
Since that first rendition at a small Christmas mass in 1847, “O Holy Night” has been sung millions of times in churches in every corner of the world. And since the moment a handful of people first heard it played over the radio, the carol has gone on to become one of the entertainment industry’s most recorded and played spiritual songs. This incredible work–requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by a poet who would later split from the church, given soaring music by a Jewish composer, and unexpectedly brought to Americans to serve as much as a tool to spotlight the sinful nature of slavery as tell the story of the birth of a Savior–has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music ever created.
Expect the Unexpected.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a staple around our house. Peanuts had become a phenomenon worldwide by the mid-1960s, and the special was commissioned and sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company. It was written over a period of several weeks, and animated on a shoestring budget in only six months. In casting the characters, the producers went an unconventional route, hiring child actors. The program’s soundtrack was similarly unorthodox: it features a jazz score by pianist Vince Guaraldi. Its absence of a laugh track (a staple in television animation in this period), in addition to its tone, pacing, music, and animation led both the producers and network to predict the project would be a disaster. I love when Linus pipes saying, “I know what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!” and then he reads from Luke’s Gospel. Did you know that almost wasn’t in there? Shulz was asked to cut that part of the movie and he answered, “If we don’t do it, who will?” Shulz had Linus’s recitation of Scripture incorporated in such a way that it forms the climax of the film, thus making it impossible to successfully edit out. It ended up being such a hit, that it won an Emmy, a Peabody award and it’s been run every Christmas since. Expect the Unexpected.
Do you know which Christmas story was even more unexpected than that?
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
“I feel so far away from my kids down there.”
God almighty, God the creator of the universe, God that was, and is, and is to come – came to earth as a tiny baby. The most vulnerable thing on Earth.
The angels asked, “Lord, how will people know he’s there, what if they don’t notice?” God answered, “Those who are looking will find him and his mission will bring all people closer to me, even if they do something really wrong. When the Prince (of Peace) is done nothing will get between them and my love.”
That’s the point of this meal we celebrate. We don’t earn it. It’s a free, beautiful, undeserved gift. The Great God of the Universe came to give us the most brilliant present of all. God’s self.