December 24, 2022
It is good to be together on this Christmas Eve in this lovely little church on the coast of our beloved Maine, to be together indoors in the warmth and comforting presence of one another so that we may once again celebrate the birth of the Child Jesus, who arrived unexpectedly in a stable in the town of Bethlehem a long time ago. Over the years, communities of faith have gathered in small churches and grand cathedrals, out of doors on a starlit night, and in the catacombs of ancient Rome, to be together and to remember the One who came to teach us how to love. So let us be together in prayer. O Holy One, you chose to come into the world to remind Your people of your deepest hopes for us that we might live together in peace, in hope and in love. Enter into our hearts this night so that we may welcome you once again into our world. Amen.
In 1847, a priest in a small town in France went to his friend whose name was Placide Cappeau and asked him to write a song for the Christmas Eve Mass. And so as Cappeau made his way to Paris in a horse-drawn carriage, he composed the poem that we now know as the beloved hymn, O Holy Night. He had the words, but didn’t have a melody, so he approached his friend who was a composer, a Jewish man in fact, and asked him to write a melody for that great hymn we now sing every Christmas. So it was in 1847 at Christmas Eve Mass, at this little church in France, that the gathered sang this great, epic hymn O Holy Night for the very first time. Soon after, Placide Cappeau decided he was going to leave the church to join the socialist movement in France. The leadership of the Catholic church felt conflicted about what to do with this beautiful hymn, written by a man who no longer wished to be associated with the church. Sadly, they outlawed the hymn. They refused to let it be sung in their liturgy.
For a decade the hymn was kept alive by the French common folk, but it wasn’t sung again in a liturgy until 1857 when a man named John Sullivan Dwight heard of this song. John Sullivan Dwight was an abolitionist from the northern part of the United States. He had heard the line in that hymn: “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease.” Not surprisingly, he was deeply moved by this hymn and introduced it to other churches who began to include this hymn in their Worship. Many who heard it deeply believed that if Jesus has come and freed humanity from all bondage then how can others keep people enslaved. The hymn was used to slowly, but surely, break down the chains that too many had embraced across our nation.
Some years later in 1906, a man named Reginald Fessenden, a former colleague of Thomas Edison, was in his office one evening experimenting with a microphone and a telegraph. He didn’t know if anything was coming through, but he decided to give it a try. What he did was begin reading his Bible starting with the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel. He read: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered….. “ Of course we know that the passage tells the story of the birth of Jesus with Glory to God and peace on earth to all. For the very first time, a voice was heard over the radio waves. We might imagine the amazement of those listening on the ships out at sea that were used to only ever hearing dot-dot-dash-dash-dash now hearing the re-telling of the birth of Christ. The speaker, Reginald Fessenden, then decided to pick up his violin nearby and he started to play. And this beautiful music rang out across the miles. It was this song, O Holy Night, which at that point had become rather famous, this hymn that connected the birth of Jesus with the worth of humanity, that as beloved Children of God, all persons are inherently valuable and none should live in bondage of whatever form. As we listen to the words of this beautiful Christmas hymn, we are reminded of the extraordinary message that rings forth from this humble birth: O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn – We are being reminded yet again that this is a new beginning, the dawn or a new day. It is not simply the birth of a child but an invitation to all of us of our inherent worth…the ‘soul’ felt its worth; can we feel that tonight? “Fall on your knees, we sing, O hear the angels’ voices…..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.”
We know that Jesus came to be among us and to teach us how to walk in our worth. And what would that look like? Can we feel the love deep within our souls? Can we set aside the deep feelings of unworthiness of pain to allow room for the message of Emmanuel, our God is with us and thus, we are inherently valuable just as we are? Jesus wants to remind us that when we can live from a place of worthiness, when we can live from a place of love that we, together as sisters and brothers can change the entire world; we can work to ensure that all are treated with respect and compassion; if we can embrace this beautiful message and allow our souls to feel our worth, we can indeed live lives of hope, of peace and of love. Merry Christmas everyone. Joyeux Noel!
(Story on O Holy Night-South Fellowship.org)