Christmas Eve 2020. It had been a tough year. The world had started to reopen a little but vaccines were still in the future. Nothing felt “normal” yet. So when I arrived to lead Christmas Eve services that December 24, it was with a sense of excitement, but also a sense of exhaustion.
I was in the church office area behind the platform reviewing my notes when I heard it — a voice singing O Holy Night. I did an auditory double-take. Who is that singing? The band for that evening was small (because, well, COVID) and I knew everyone who was singing that night. I thought. Whose voice is that? I walked out the office and into the worship center. It was Mike Johnson, a congregant new to Christ Community.
Mike played bass in the band a few times, but I didn’t know he could sing like that!
He wasn’t in the band that night, but was one of the Scripture readers. As the band was rehearsing, Mike asked if he could sing one of the verses.
“Sure,” replied Taylor, who was leading the Christmas Eve band.
Mike sang one verse in rehearsal, and we all knew this was going to be something special.
“You’re going to sing the whole song. Solo.” Taylor decided.
Mike did and it saved COVID Christmas Eve.
In every one one of the three services that evening O Holy Night became the highlight. The room was transformed as people basked in the beauty of the music, the beauty of the voice, and the beauty of the lyrics: A thrill of hope the weary [COVID] world rejoices. Even now, nearly two years later, people still tell me how that song moved them so deeply and is a moment they will always remember.
Music has that kind of power.
Origin of O Holy Night
The lyrics of O Holy Night began their life as a poem titled “Minuit, Chrétiens.” French wine merchant Placide Cappeau composed the poem in 1843 to celebrate the restoration of a church in the village of Roquemaure. Later, it was set to music by the composer Adolphe Adam, and quickly grew in popularity. It was translated into English in 1885 and became a favorite of those in the abolitionist movement because of the line: Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother / And in his name all oppression shall cease.
But not everyone was a fan. One Roman Catholic music journal wrote in 1864:
Adolphe Adam’s [“Minuit, Chrétiens”] has been performed at many churches during Midnight Masses….it might be a good thing to discard this piece whose popularity is becoming unhealthy. It is sung in the streets, social gatherings, and at bars with live entertainment. It becomes debased and degenerated. The best would be to let it go its own way, far from houses of religion, which can do very well without it.*
Thankfully, the journal’s authors didn’t get their wish, and today O Holy Night is still sung in the streets, at social gatherings, and in churches. You might even still hear it at a bar or two if they happen to play one of the many recordings of it made by artists as diverse as Patti Labelle, Sufjan Stevens, and Martina McBride.
Three lines in the song resonate with me every time I sing it or hear it sung.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices. Regardless of generation or circumstance, we all feel the weariness of the world — a world longing for the One who says “Come to me all who are weary and I will give rest.”
In all our trials born to be our friend
I love the line: In all our trials born to be our friend. The God who made us does not stand far off from us. He has come near in Jesus. He knows our need, and sympathizes with our weakness. He is one of us. And yet he did not fail where we fail. And so Jesus, the God-man can be the rescuer we need: He knows our need / To our weakness no stranger!
Thus, the pastor who wrote Hebrews can proclaim:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.
Hebrews 4:14–16 Christian Standard Bible
Jesus, who is the true and better high priest, is also the true and better king. He is the king who will do away with injustice and oppression.
All oppression shall cease and Psalm 72
This is what we find in the third verse of O Holy Night:
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,
Our Scripture passage for this week is Psalm 72. It describes the ideal king who will bring justice:
For he will rescue the poor who cry out and the afflicted who have no helper.
He will have pity on the poor and helpless and save the lives of the poor.
He will redeem them from oppression and violence, for their lives are precious in his sight.
Psalm 72:12–14 Christian Standard Bible
At Jesus’ Second Advent, his Second Coming, he will be the king who once and for all sets things right. While we wait, we anticipate and point to this coming by working to bring about what Stephen Garbar calls “proximate justice.” Not perfect justice, because only Jesus can and will bring that when he comes. But a justice for now that adorns, that is part of, the proclamation of a hope that thrills a weary world.
Fall on your knees. Kneel before him; hear the angel voices and add yours to the never ceasing chorus of praise to our coming king.