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
“Til He appears and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious mornO Holy Night
The lyrics for “O Holy Night” were written by the French poet Placide Cappeau in the 1840s to celebrate the renovation of a church organ in Roquemaure. But the lyrics most of us associate with the song were written by John Sullivan Dwight, a minister who penned the English version of the song. “O Holy Night” has become a holiday staple, covered by powerhouse voices like Mariah Carey, Martina McBride, and Celine Dion (although I’m partial to the Vince Gill version).
Lyrically, the focus remains on the Incarnation of Christ and “the night of our dear Savior’s birth” as it has been traditionally envisioned. What resonates so strongly with me is the way this collaboratively authored hymn so poignantly captures the circumstances of His earthly arrival. The Christ child literally enters into human history at night, signaling His willingness to journey into the darkness of our own creation, a “world in sin and error.” Yet this world is “pining,” longing for deliverance from guilt-stained shackles. His visitation comes to us as the dawning of a new day, a “glorious morn” as our long-awaited Savior enters the scene to set us free. The Incarnation is the Great Rescue Mission and as a result, “the soul felt its worth” as God’s prized possession and the singular focus of this reconciliation project. This certainly qualifies as Good News as our world experiences the jolting “thrill of hope” that we remember to this day.
And perhaps my favorite line: “a weary world rejoices.” The Christ child was born into a weary world, to be sure. But now that weary world has reason to rejoice.
Perhaps this scene rings so true to so many of us because we find it to be congruent with our present circumstances. This has certainly been a dark year: pandemic; isolation; anxiety; economic uncertainty; racial injustice; the constant politicization of everything. And as dark as these times have been, there is an even greater cloud hanging over us. Our world, much like the one imagined by Cappeau and Dwight, is one of “sin and error,” as we increasingly ignore the woe of Isaiah:
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!Isaiah 5:20-21
Lest we forget, we contribute to the darkness of our world by elevating ourselves to god-like status each time we determine good and evil apart from the revelation of God. Per the prophet, these are dark times indeed.
And so we find ourselves pining for deliverance, looking to the heavens for a Savior. As Paul would say, creation eagerly longs for the revealing of the children of God, groaning in labor pains as we wait for adoption (Romans 8:19-23). A weary world is waiting for something, even if we’re not always sure what it is.
I believe there is hope to be found amid our pining and groaning in this woe-filled world. Cappeau and Dwight framed it well over 150 years ago: this hope forms around a helpless babe, born to save us. His entry into the world is surely less saccharine than the way the nativity is commonly depicted in song and film. Rather than a scene of sentimentality, we’d be better off to see his birth as an act of war. A “new and glorious morn” has broken, not because Mary had a cute little baby to snuggle, but because in Jesus, God is taking back what rightfully belongs to Him.
This Good News is the thrilling hope of glory. “O Holy Night” asks us to enter into this night once more, to feel the darkness that envelopes us, replete with despair. But it is precisely here in the darkness that we find cause for celebration, God meeting us in this space with His faithful promise. “The soul felt its worth” because He did not abandon us to the darkness. He does not leave us nor forsake us. Dawn breaks as the Victorious One puts on flesh to redeem us from the clutches of sin. This is a new day, bright and clear enough to fend back the darkness and renew our hope.
And once again, a weary world rejoices.
Fall on your knees and hear the angel voices.
O night divine, O night when Christ was born.