written by Laura Hairston
I’ve always been a huge fan of Christmas music. It doesn’t matter what time of year, but I’ve been known to pop in a bit of Mariah Carey Christmas & rock out! Tonight as I was coming home, I turned up “O Holy Night” (yes, from the Glee Christmas Album – don’t judge me! J) but, this is my all time favorite Christmas song, and anything sung by Lea Michele is a thumbs up in my book. But, I was drawn more to a specific verse that for some reason jumped out at me more than ever before – it says,
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…
I sat in my car with tear filled eyes imagining the day that everyone (especially The Church) would truly embrace these words and live them out in their every day lives. What does it mean to truly love each other, the ones who may be like us and those very different from us? To live out His gospel – helping bring peace where there is strife, dissension, broken relationships, poverty, the list could go on and on. I was really intrigued as to the story behind why this song was written.
The first article I came upon said “Declared 'unfit for church services' in France and later embraced by U.S. abolitionists, the song continues to inspire.” Of course this immediately caught my attention. The song was actually written by a wine merchant in a small French town who was as the article said, “known more for his wine than his church attendance”. In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was asked by his parish priest to write a poem for Christmas mass. He was honored to share his talents with the church.
In a dusty coach traveling down a bumpy road to France's capital city, Placide Cappeau considered the priest's request. Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Thoughts of being present on the blessed night inspired him. By the time he arrived in Paris, "Cantique de Noel" had been completed.
Moved by his own work, Cappeau decided that his "Cantique de Noel" was not just a poem, but a song in need of a master musician's hand. Not musically inclined himself, the poet turned to one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams, for help.
The son of a well-known classical musician, Adolphe had studied in the Paris conservatoire. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics that his friend Cappeau gave him must have challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything he received from London, Berlin, or St. Petersburg.
As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words of "Cantique de Noel" represented a day he didn't celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau's beautiful words. Adams' finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
The song became embraced by the Church in France and sang in the Christmas Catholic mass. But, when Placid Cappeau left the Church and joined the socialist movement & church leaders found out Adolphe Adams was a Jew, they declared the song unfit for church services because of it’s “because of its lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion."
Soon after the church attempted to bury the song, an American writer, John Sullivan Dwight, felt this song should be introduced to America. Being a strong abolitionist, he was drawn to the same verse I was, especially the part “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother”. It truly identified with his view of slavery in the South. He published it in his magazine, the English version “O Holy Night” and it became embraced by America especially in the Northern part during the Civil War. You can read more of the story here.
It is so interesting to me how a song, which was declared unfit for church services, could be so prophetic and timely today. It seems to me that just like Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, words that are truly inspired can transcend time and still have so much meaning in our present lives. So, today I would challenge you to answer the question, right now, am I living out His law of love and gospel of peace? And, do I love my neighbor, even those who are unlike me? Those are just a few things to think about this Christmas season! Thank you, Placid & Aldoph for writing such a beautiful song!