‘O Come All ye Faithful’ was penned by John Francis Wade, an English Catholic who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rebellion of the Eighteenth Century. At the Battle of Culloden, the last major land battle ever fought on British soil, the Jacobites were defeated, meaning that Britain remained under the Protestant Hanoverian monarchy. Catholics like Wade who had supported the rebellion were viewed as traitors and liable to be tortured and executed, so he fled to exile in France.
This was a time of great suspicion and bitterness. In Scotland the bloodshed had been such that the general commanding the English forces would forever be remembered as ‘Butcher Cumberland.’ In England there were periodic panics about Catholic plots led by exiles from France. And in France, men like John Francis Wade had to spend the rest of their lives in a foreign land, knowing that any attempt to return home would result in death and disgrace.
All of which makes it all the more remarkable that when Wade decided to write a Christmas Carol he didn’t concentrate on sectarian or divisive issues. Instead he concentrated on what draws together Christians of different denominations and traditions. He emphasized the shared beliefs of all Christians.
“Sing all ye citizens of heaven above,” encourages believers to join their voices with the angelic host in celebrating the birth of Christ. The New Testament, in Philippians 3:20, declares that our citizenship is in heaven. That truth would be a comfort indeed to an exile who would probably never see his home again, and today it still speaks powerfully to the millions of migrants who have emigrated to strange lands in order to flee conflict or to find employment.
Another verse, sadly often omitted when the Carol is sung today, concentrates on the great truth, held by all Christians and expressed in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus is God the Son (“begotten not created”).
God of God light of light
Lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb;
Very God begotten not created:
O come let us adore Him Christ the Lord.
The final verse reminds us of the opening Chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is the ‘Word’ that was in the beginning and was active in God’s creation of the universe.
Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing:
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
Or, as John 1:14 puts it, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
And so this Carol, originally written in Latin at a time of great sectarian and nationalistic divisions, has become a unifying factor.
In December 1914 the First World War had already become a horrific slaughter. All along the Western Front, British and German forces were bogged down in trenches staring at each other across ‘No Man’s Land.’ Each side lost no opportunity in killing each other. Snipers were continually alert for signs of movement in the opposition trenches.
For example, an act as simple as lighting a cigarette could alert a sniper to an enemy’s position. They would see the tiny flash of flame as a man lit his cigarette, then a movement as the match was passed on to a second soldier. This would give the sniper time to get in position and anticipate the position of the next man. As the match was passed to a third man, a shot would ring out and the poor wretch would fall dead, with an unlit cigarette still between his lips and the match still burning between his fingers. This led to a lasting superstition that it was unlucky to be the third person to light a cigarette from the one match. Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland (from where tens of thousands of shipyard workers once enlisted and marched off to war), I can remember grown men refusing to light their cigarettes if two of their mates had already done so from the same match.
Yet, in this cauldron of hate and death, something remarkable happened exactly one hundred years ago. As the clock reached midnight and Christmas Day began, German soldiers began to sing ‘Stille Nacht’ (Silent Night) in German. The lads in the British trenches listened to the sounds of singing drifting across No Man’s Land. Then they took their turn, singing ‘The First Noel’ in English. This was not in itself remarkable – two different armies, speaking two different languages, were celebrating Christmas in the only way they could given the horrible conditions and circumstances.
But then someone began to sing the Latin version of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’
Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum videte, Regem angelorum:
Venite adoremus, Dominum
Sufficient soldiers on both sides knew the Lain version of this Carol to sing it together. And as the men on both sides of No Man’s Land sang out the words together something occurred that is so remarkable as to be almost miraculous. Soldiers began to get out of their trenches and hesitantly approach each other with outstretched hands. They embraced, wished one another Merry Christmas, exchanged gifts and even pooled their rations to create Christmas Meals.
There was even a famous football match between English soldiers and German soldiers (I’m not sure of the final score, but I suspect Germany probably beat England in a penalty shoot-out!).
And so it was that a Christmas Carol, penned by a man on the run and vilified for both his faith and his political allegiances, became the catalyst for a memorable act of reconciliation in the midst of darkness and hate. O come let us adore Him – Christ the Lord!