Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caroling the Gospel X: O Holy Night

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

As this song is also known as Cantique de Noel, it's hardly surprising that this beloved carol originated in France.  Written in the 1800s to a pre-existing poem, the literal translation of the French is actually quite a bit meatier than the modern version--check it:
Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God-man descended to us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior. 
People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!
May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
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 overcome every obstacle:
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! 
'To erase the stain of original sin and to end wrath of His Father . . . for all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.'  This is some striking gospel language.  But a few years later, along came a Unitarian minister who did his own 'translation' and surprise!  Most of the gospel-y bits got removed.  This new sanitized version is the one we know today, more's the pity.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the 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, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here came the wise men from Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our Friend!
He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend!

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!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
 Fortunately, the familiar version still mentions sin, though it's attributed rather impersonally to 'the world' (unlike the original version's reference to 'original sin').  But there is some admission of a need for a Savior.  Our world--and with it, our own self--is steeped in sin, so much so that our souls are weary with it.  (Romans 8:20-23; Galatians 3:22) Until the appearance of Christ, we had no hope--His arrival heralds a new dawn to chase away the darkness.  (See Matthew 4:13-17)  We are commanded to bow in humility before this glorious news.  (See Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:9-11

[NOTE: I have always hated the line 'and the soul felt its worth.'  Lo and behold, that wretched phrase is nowhere in the original poem.  And with good reason--the gospel story has nothing to do with our worth.  Yes, Jesus tells us that we are worth 'more than many sparrows' to God (Matthew 10:31) and so should trust Him to care for us, but as for our intrinsic worth after the Fall, Scripture is none too complimentary.  Because of our sin we are worthless (Romans 3:10-12)--it is God who is worthy (See Revelation 4:11). I suppose it's possible that 'the soul felt its worth' means we become aware of our worthlessness, but I don't think that's how people mean it when they sing it.]

Verse two is a little fluffy for me--glowing hearts and Jesus born to be our friend in trials.  Still, there are good things here.  We are led to Christ by faith. Not by works.  (Ephesians 2:8-9)  This faith does bring us serenity--that is, peace, especially peace with God. (Romans 5:1-2; Philippians 4:7)  Christ comforts us in our weakness and supports us in our trials.  (Isaiah 40:28-29; Romans 8:3-4, 26; II Corinthians 1:3-4) He is our friend (John 15:15)--after all, He is a friend of sinners (Matthew 11:19), a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24), a friend who laid down His life for us (John 15:13)  Christ is the King of Kings, and we should kneel before him. (Revelation 17:14)  Still, the verse overall feels man-centric--Christ's coming is all about meeting our needs, being our friend . . . the kingship of Christ seems an afterthought.

The third verse is likewise filled with good things:  we are to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34-35); the entirety of His law is summed up in love (Matthew 22:35-40; Galatians 5:14); there is peace in the gospel (Romans 5:1-2; Ephesians 6:14-15); slave and free are all one in Christ (I Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28), and rightly so, for we were all slaves to sin and death apart from the gospel (John 8:34; Romans 6:6) and now are slaves of Christ (Romans 6:18, 22) [NOTE: The original handles this better, establishing that we all were slaves and now are brothers with Christ, and that the Love of Christ unites us]; His second coming heralds the end of oppression (Matthew 12:17-21; Luke 4:17-19).  All of this does call for a spirit of gratitude and praise to God (Colossians 3:15-16).

However, nowhere in this lovely carol do we see any mention of Christ's atoning death, His blood, His sacrifice. The mechanism of our salvation is utterly ignored, and our fate apart from salvation is never mentioned.  The reference to God's wrath, present in the original poem, is gone. (Romans 5:8-10)  Gone, too is our original sin--the reason we need salvation.  (Romans 5:12-15)  We lose the unity of the gospel story--that he was born, suffered, and died for us.  The incarnation was part of the arc of the gospel.  He was born to die. 

Still, the first verse does paint a haunting picture of a world lost in sin before the coming of the Savior, so I suppose there are enough hints of the gospel for this to count.

To read the next entry in the series, 'Caroling the Gospel XI: Of the Father's Love Begotten', click here.

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