Christmas Carols would seem to be the most user-friendly and inoffensive manifestations of Christianity in western society. Even those who scream loudly against any symbol of Christianity in the public square will happily hum or sing along to Christmas Carols as they browse the shops to pick up that last minute Christmas present. Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The God Delusion’ has admitted that he loves Christmas Carols – not stuff like ‘Jingle Bells’ or ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ – but genuine Carols that sing about the birth of Jesus.
The idea that we might find strong doctrine and prophetic preaching in the words of Christmas Carols might, therefore, be surprising. So read on ……
THE GIFT OF SEEING OURSELVES AS OTHERS SEE US
Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet, wrote, “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as others see us!”
Sometimes it can be valuable, if somewhat painful, to look at yourself through the eyes of others. Indeed, a leader of an atheist student movement, Hemant Mehta, was once paid to visit churches and blog about his impressions as a visitor. The resulting book, ‘I Sold My Soul on e-Bay’ is a useful resource for church leaders who want to know how to attract, and to avoid alienating, the unchurched.
One of the most beautiful of our Christmas Carols, ‘O Holy Night,’ is a result of a similar experiment in seeing ourselves from another’s perspective.
In the 1840’s, the parish priest at Roquemaure, a small French town on the banks of the Rhône, asked a local wine merchant to write a Christmas poem. Placide Cappeau was a convinced atheist and a fierce critic of the Church. His poem was set to music by a Jewish operatic composer, Adolphe Adam, who called his work ‘La Marseillaise Religieuse.’ It was first performed publicly in the Roquemare Church in 1847.
The poem, in its original version, reflects on how the Church of Cappeau’s day looked woefully different from how a Church should look if God really did come to earth in human flesh and empower His disciples to follow His teachings. Such a Church would be marked by humility, not by pomp and ceremony, and would offer hope to the poor and oppressed rather than forming an alliance with the political powers of wealth and privilege.
- The entire world thrills with hope
- On this night that gives it a Saviour.
- People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
- Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
- Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!
- The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
- O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
- It is to your pride that God preaches.
- Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
- Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
- The Redeemer has broken every bond:
- The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
- He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
- Love unites those that iron had chained.
- Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
- For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
- People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
- Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
- Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!
I feel an immense sadness when I read these words. These are not the sentiments of someone who hated God. These reflect the cry of one who was so inspired by Jesus that he looked to the Church with an expectation of seeing the Kingdom of God, and saw instead the empires of men.
The new song was popular at first, but the Church authorities in France stamped down on its use. After all, they reasoned, how could a musical collaboration between an atheist wine merchant and a bankrupt Jew possibly have anything to say to respectable Christian people?
And that might have been the end of the story, except that a massive controversy was exploding in the United States over the issue of slavery. The abolitionist movement, which included large numbers of Evangelical Christians, began to sing an English translation of the song as an abolitionist anthem, particularly the words:
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.
Every time I sing this Carol, or hear it performed, I thank God for the prophetic insight, granted to an atheist, that the Incarnation of Christ demands a Church that embodies the compassion and justice of the Lord. And I thank God for the courage and passion of my brothers and sisters in Christ that battled against slavery in the Nineteenth Century. Then I pray that the Church today might be similarly effective in combating the dreadful scourge of modern day slavery and people trafficking.
There’s a funny little postscript to this story. On Christmas Eve of 1906, a Canadian inventor, Reginald Fessenden, experimented with a new radio transmitter. Radio operators who had only ever heard the clicks of morse code through their headphones listened in astonishment to a live audio broadcast. Fessenden, the son of an Anglican clergyman, read the story of the Nativity from Luke Chapter Two. Then he picked up his violin and played ‘O Holy Night.’ And so the anti-slavery anthem, penned by an atheist to celebrate the birth of Christ, became the first song ever to be broadcast over the airwaves.