What Are You Singing: O! Holy Night | Sojourners

What Are You Singing: O! Holy Night

Photo: Nativity Scene, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Nativity Scene, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

I can remember hearing several times as a middle and high schooler that Christians lie the most when they sing. These claims generally came from the mouths of college-aged worship leaders during emotional praise segments at mission camps and conferences. They were usually followed up with a heartfelt plea to raise honest words and promises to God during the next song. (And if we really meant it, we would ignore the burning stares of our judgmental, worldly peers and come down front for our seventh altar call.) 

Though I generally don’t remember these scenes and indictments fondly, I have recently been contemplating the idea of honest worship, especially in relation to the Christmas season. I mean, how often do we memorize a whole song and sing along to it regularly without really stopping to contemplate the lyrics? And even when we do realize what we’re singing, how often do we actually let those words transform our hearts or actions or perspectives?  

All of these thoughts started stewing in my mind during my Thanksgiving vacation two weeks ago. Per usual, I started playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving (and by the day after I mean a few days before). As I was washing dishes, belting out my favorite version of “O! Holy Night,” I was suddenly struck with the thought What am I singing? Read the lyrics below to see if you get what I mean. (Hint: my moment happened somewhere around the second verse.)

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.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

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.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise us,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory evermore proclaim!
His power and glory evermore proclaim!

Do you see it?! If you’re anything like me, the first four lines of the second verse probably hit you like a ton of bricks. I’ve been singing this song for years — I even had the words memorized. But I’m sorry to say the first time I actually heard what I was singing was that moment in my kitchen two weeks ago.

But let’s back up. Did any of you know this song was originally written in French? Using the Gospel of Luke as a guide, Placide Cappeau wrote the poem and then had it set to music by Adolphe Adam in 1847. It was translated to English by John Dwight Sullivan, an American Unitarian, transcendentalist, and abolitionist. The carol became a classic after it gained popularity in the United States during the Civil War. (There is a third verse, or rather, a second verse, but the two listed above make up the most common rendition of the song.)

To be sure, this carol is epic — especially when paired with the right orchestral arrangement and well-timed key changes. The song begins soaring above in the heavens that God spoke into being before time existed, but it moves quickly to focus in on the depravity and hopelessness of the human condition. But behold! The Christ Child was born to die, saving us from ourselves and from the darkness. The soul cannot help but feel the thrill of hope as the music builds into the first chorus. 

But then we are immediately brought back down to earth. Perhaps the night when Christ was born was magical. But his life was not a charmed one: he lived as a wanderer and outcast, surrounded by many, yet ever-alone.  But his unbelievably perfect, unimaginably humble, and unbearably sacrificial life on earth was pointless if it didn’t teach us the one thing he constantly and infallibly displayed: unconditional love for humanity. 

When we sing this carol we proclaim that his law is love and his gospel is peace. Do we believe it? Do we want to? Because if we do, this statement should have profound implications on our lives. When we think about the Christmas season, do we think of it as the time to reflect on our Savior coming to earth as an infant — the most peaceful form possible — in order to loose the chains of injustice, untie the cords of every yoke, and to set the oppressed free? Or do we allow ourselves to be swept away in the current of our culture, consuming products laboriously and painfully produced by the very people God created for Jesus to save, and whom we are called to protect and love in his name? 

I fear that it is far too easy today to gloss over those lines, and skip straight to the part where we joyfully raise our grateful chorus — for thank God he has lifted our burden of oppression. But here is a word of truth and caution: the earth is still weary, groaning under the weight of widespread injustice and global oppression. 

Let us hope that a new morn is breaking this Christmas season: let it be the light of Christians awakening to acts of true worship. This song beckons us to believe in Christ’s power and glory, let us do so by tangibly bearing his love and peace into his world. 

What are you singing this Christmas?   

Jenny Smith is Executive Assistant for Sojourners.

Photo: Nativity Scene, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

Editor's note: This article was updated on Dec. 17, 2021 to correct the spelling of composer Adolphe Adam's name.

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