“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.”
In 1847 a wine seller by trade was asked by his parish priest to compose a poem for Christmas. That wine seller was Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure and what he wrote is what the English-speaking world knows as “O Holy Night”.
Yesterday my family and I attended a Christmas music and carol sing event at the Knox Presbyterian Church in downtown Ottawa. The church itself was founded three years before “O Holy Night” was composed (1844) back when Ottawa was a small lumber outpost known as Bytown. The church building we sang in, a beautiful space meant to replicate English Gothic and Norman architecture, was built in 1932. The event featured organ music and a small choir plus a five-piece brass band. In that wonderful acoustic space, with excellent musicians leading us, we sang and heard some of the season’s most classic carols. I had tears in my eyes more than once.
But the above lyric really hit me hardest, sung by a soloist with a lovely soprano voice. In that space, with the voice and emotion behind it, those words hit home for me like they haven’t in a long time. “O Holy Night” has become one of those carols that has been really and truly overdone in our culture. When I Googled the lyrics just now I was given Mariah Carey’s version on Google play… Sigh. Frankly, it is hard to go shopping at ths time of year without tripping over some version of “O Holy Night” sung by someone. It is a shame that some of the songs of this season have lost their punch due to their overuse and misuse.
There was something about the authenticity of this performance, the genuine sense of faith and the context of goodwill in that church, that made these lyrics come alive again for me. It is moments like those that renew my hope in the power of art to transcend the banality we’ve attached to it. I am sure that when this poem was composed, then set to music, it was done in a sense of devotion and never, ever with an eye toward it becoming a Christmas/pop cultural staple for the next 160 years, piped in to accompany the orgy of spending and stress in our local mall.
I felt, in a way, that I was hearing it for the first time yesterday, and that was part of why it was so moving. It reminded me of the fact that Christmas isn’t about all the stuff we’ve made it about over the years; Christmas is about believing that God loved the world so much he would send his Son to teach love, spread peace, break chains and bring oppression to an end.
Hopefully in the midst of all the shopping, spending and stress this season you will be able to hear something as over-recorded as “O Holy Night”, even a version done by Mariah Carey, and come away with that feeling of what is true embedded forever in the lyrics and music. That is my Christmas wish for you.