Paris, France. December 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, a wine merchant and poet known more for his drinking than his church attendance, was asked by one of the priests to write a poem for Christmas Eve. Although he was probably a little confused and apprehensive, Chappeau agreed. While in his carriage on his way to Paris he found inspiration in the scriptures found in Luke 2 and began to write a poem that would be called Cantique de Noel.
“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, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
Even though the words to O Holy Night were written over 150 years ago, they feel like they could have been written yesterday. A weary world? A tired world, an overwhelmed world? Yeah, I feel that. In 1847, France was on the brink of another revolution — the agricultural communities surrounding Paris were in crisis, the economy was collapsing, and the monarchy’s popularity and influence were fading fast. We’re less close to a revolution, but does anyone else feel just exhausted and worn down by the world we’re living in? It seems like we find ourselves divided by a void of differences — you’re either on one side of an issue or the other, and anything else in between seems to get swallowed up and disappears. It feels like we’re just screaming into the void, hoping that someone — that anyone — is listening. It feels like no matter how hard we try, nothing changes.
But 150 years ago, Chappeau saw a light in the darkness through the scriptures of Luke 2:8-11:
“Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. Then the Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, ‘Do not be afraid! Look — I bring good news to you — wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city, and He is Christ the Lord.”
Imagine you are a shepherd a couple thousand years ago. You’re in the middle of nowhere, you’re far from your family, surrounded by the smell of livestock and the darkness of the night. You feel undervalued, unseen, overlooked. All you want to do is go home, but you know things aren’t that great at home either — your friends and family are living under the rule of foreigners that couldn’t care less about your beliefs, but as long as they get your taxes and don’t cause any trouble, they let you hold onto your traditions. You feel alone. You feel hopeless.
But all of a sudden, you feel an incredible presence all around you — like heaven itself has opened up to try to tell you something. You’re all at once overwhelmed and terrified — but weirdly peaceful and for the first time in a long time, you feel like you have hope. You feel like you’re being called somewhere, toward something new, something better, something that will change everything. You feel like this night — this holy night — is the moment where everything changes.
Everything did change on that holy night. And if we left the story here, there wouldn’t be anything that could change that or make it any less special. But the little baby boy that was born on that holy night would grow up. He would grow up to challenge the way the entire world and understood God. He would teach us that love is the greatest commandment. He would teach us God doesn’t rule through fear and war, but through grace and peace. He would teach us that each and every one of us belongs in the Kingdom of God, that we are all equals and that we are all beloved. He would teach us that nothing can hold us from his love — not the chains of sin and not the things that hold us down on this earth.
The story of O Holy Night doesn’t end with Chappeau and the Christmas Eve service in Paris in 1847. This Christmas hymn had become so beloved by the French people that they would sing it in their homes — until a decade later, a man named John Sullivan Dwight heard it and decided that it needed to be heard halfway around the world. Dwight was an American writer who felt that this Christmas song deserved to be heard and loved in America as well, so he translated Cantique de Noel into what we know today as O Holy Night.
But Dwight saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ — Dwight was an abolitionist and the words of the second verse spoke to his very soul:
“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 we let all within us praise His holy name.”
Dwight heard these words and they resonated in his heart. He heard it as not just a Christmas carol, but as a call toward a better world. He saw that holy night as not just an event in history or a story we tell once a year, but as a moment that changed everything forever and that still had the power to call him to help change the world in his lifetime.
This time of year isn’t just Christmas carols and candy canes and nativity scenes. This time of year reminds us that God is constantly challenging us and calling us toward a better world. It’s a reminder that God’s work is not finished yet. It’s a reminder that we aren’t just screaming into the void, but that God is listening. It’s a reminder that God came and walked among us and gave us a new way — a better way — to live.
This is the beginning of something beautiful and holy and wonderful. Whatever this next year brings for you, I hope you find moments of joy and laughter in times of darkness, peace, and wisdom in times of confusion, strength, and courage in times of difficulty, and love throughout all of it.
Associate Director of Youth Ministries