Christmas Eve 2013
The title for the meditation probably sounds familiar. It’s a phrase found within the first stanza of the carol “O Holy Night.”
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 appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world 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 divine, O night, O night Divine.
I love the music written for Advent and Christmas and over the years I’ve amassed an extensive collection of recordings. I love the familiar chestnuts, as well as the new compositions and recordings that emerge every year. There’s something about what we celebrate this night that is so remarkably generative, yielding ever more imaginative renderings of the story. “O Holy Night” is among the most-favored carols, although it’s probably over-heard, over-performed throughout the season. Maybe you’re tired of hearing it or don’t really listen when you hear it being played. I can remember playing it on the piano as a boy and lingering over each stanza, so rich in meaning and imagery. It’s a majestic, mystical piece.
But it was in the middle of Advent this year as I was listening to yet another recording of this piece that something struck me in a new way: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,/ Till he appeared’ and the soul felt its worth.” When “the soul felt its worth”—that’s the phrase that caught me. This phrase, indeed this carol, offers a message, an understanding of Christ’s nativity that we don’t find in many Christmas carols.
Ask your ordinary Christian or your ordinary non-Christian—now, I don’t know what an ordinary Christian is or non-Christian, for that matter—wonder with me, ask someone what Christmas is all about, most will probably answer: it’s the feast day that celebrates the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. Then ask, why was he born or what was he born to do, and then the answers will start to vary widely. Many will say that he was born to save us from our sin; he was born to suffer and die in our place, born to deal decisively with sin, to take on himself God’s judgment that we deserve. Others will say he came to show us God’s way, God’s kingdom ethic for the world; he came to show us how to love and forgive. What would you say? It’s worth asking and re-asking throughout lives, particularly at Christmas and again at Easter.
My guess is—maybe I’m wrong (I hope I’m wrong)—that many would not reply with what we find in this first stanza of the carol, that Jesus’ birth demonstrates definitely for the world that the soul has founds its worth, that with his birth the soul felt, knew, acknowledged its worth, it’s value. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. But I know too many Christians and non-Christians, people who used to be Christians but are no longer, who never heard this message, never heard this gospel word, who never heard from a pulpit or in Sunday School or in their family experience about their inherent worth and value as children of God.
Now, don’t get me wrong . I’m enough of a Calvinist to affirm the destructive the power of sin. I agree with John Calvin (1509-1564) that the heart is a factory of idols that can produce a staggering array of false gods, deities, ideologies, and sports teams and personalities that we worship as divine, divine birds no less. I’m enough of a Presbyterian through and through to affirm that God’s grace makes the first move to save us because we can’t. We’re all (including me) too broken, too wounded, too fragile, too weak to procure God’s favor on our own. And like Calvin, I affirm that the human ego is not the center of the universe (although it often thinks it is, to the detriment of us all); God and God’s sovereignty stand at the center of everything.
Nevertheless, somehow we have forgotten another aspect of the gospel. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that that world might be save through him (John 3:17). And God sent the Son because we’re worth the journey, we’re worth the effort. You and I matter, ultimately, in the eyes of God. We are worth the risk, the hurt, the rejection, the suffering of the Son because the Son risked the hurt and rejection and suffering and even death in order for us to know that we are the object of God’s love, the apple of God’s eye. When we sing Joy to the World it’s also important to realize that we are the joy of God’s world. You and I matter. We bear God’s image. The birth of Jesus means that being born, being human, matters, it has value, with an inestimable worth. Humanity matters. Your humanity, your existence, right now, matters to God. Your uniqueness, all your faults and failings and peculiarities, all that makes you you matter and through you—through such a life—God’s glory is known.
It seems to me that this is integral to what we celebrate here this night. And, to be honest, it breaks my heart when I encounter people who haven’t heard this part of the Christmas story, who have not heard in the message an affirmation of their inherent worth. It’s remarkable to find this message in “O Holy Night,” given that the text, written by the wine merchant and poet, Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), was a professed anti-cleric and an atheist. It was written in Roquemaure, France, at the end of 1843. The organ in the parish church had been recently renovated and the parish priest asked Cappeau, a native of the town, to write a Christmas poem, “Cantique de Noël.” That’s quite a poem coming from a professed atheist. I’m not surprised, really, because that’s what this story does, that’s what Christ birth does in the world, that’s what happens when someone hears this message and feels it in the depths of one’s soul. Something new comes into being: we discover who we are in God’s eyes, that we are people of extraordinary worth, whose lives, by grace, can be beautiful expressions of God’s glory.
The apostle Paul himself said that this is what we discovered through the birth, life, and ministry of Jesus Christ. In Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of way of life” (Eph. 2:10). “For we are what he has made us….” The Greek here for “made,” “to make” is poema. We are God’s poema…God’s poem, created in Christ Jesus for good works. That’s what his birth means and yields for us—the knowledge that we are God’s poems.
God isn’t aloof, apart, separate from us. God has come close, to share our breath, our hopes and dreams, to give us life, to awaken us and call us to life—why?—so that we come to know our inherent worth as children of God—why?—so that our lives can then be given for the world, for our neighbor in love. For, like the child we celebrate this night, none of us were born for ourselves to do whatever we want to, to pursue of own pursuits; like this child, we were created to reveal the glory of God and reflect that glory, reflect that light with our lives, as souls, by God’s grace, who know their worth. When this happens others might come to know what we know and celebrate this night holy night. That’s the gift we continue to give to the world. When we know this, we know something else: “For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” The world is never again the same. Thanks be to God!
 “O Holy Night,” music by Adolphe Adam (1803-1856). Original text by Placide Cappeau. John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893) revised the text for English in 1855.