Fall on your knees: Where words fail, ‘O Holy Night’ prevails

Celine Dion. Josh Groban. Mariah Carey. The list of musicians who have performed the classic and perhaps most powerful of the Christmas hymns, “O Holy Night,” is extensive. Go down the YouTube rabbit hole, and you’ll find there’s even a heavy metal version, not to mention countless other artists who have dared to take it on, to varying results.

The Christmas season cannot truly begin until the local radio station begins playing Christmas music across the airwaves (or, for you millennials and Generation Z-ers, until Spotify magically curates a Christmas playlist for you). More so than any other holiday, the music is inextricably linked to the season when it comes to Christmas. Vast coves of memories are tied to those tunes that we can’t get enough of come Black Friday (and are utterly sick of come Dec. 26). 

And yet, certain songs transcend the inevitable “Christmas music burnout,” and “O Holy Night” is one of them.

It’s the kind of song that makes one stop dead in their tracks, especially when being performed by an exceptional vocalist. But what is it about “O Holy Night” that stirs our hearts so? A look back at the history of the composition and its musical and lyrical characteristics can provide a glimpse into the power of this timeless piece and hopefully, a newfound appreciation for it.

Much like the Nativity itself, the genesis of “O Holy Night” centers around a rather ordinary occasion in a rather ordinary French town.

Much like the Nativity itself, the genesis of “O Holy Night” centers around a rather ordinary occasion in a rather ordinary French town. In 1843, the organ at the local parish in the quaint town of Roquemaure had been recently renovated, and a local poet by the name of Placide Cappeau was asked at the behest of the parish’s priest to write a poem to celebrate the occasion.  

Originally called Cantique de Noël, the text in the original French was quite different than the familiar lyrics that are widely known today; it was also simply a poem. The opening lines, translated to literal English, read: Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour When God as man descended unto 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 Saviour.

This rather didactic recitation of the poem changed in 1847 when the popular secular composer Adolphe Adam wrote the delicate yet incredibly moving melody that is now synonymous with “O Holy Night” and put it to the canticle. The newly-minted composition was premiered that same year in Roquemaure by Adam’s friend and local soprano Émily Laurey, who sang it at the Midnight Mass in the church of St. Jean-Baptiste et Jean l’Évangeliste.

Ironically, though intended as a very spiritual and pious piece at heart, the original text of the song drew a fair amount of influence from the secular culture of the time, which is understandable when one considers the political backdrop of France during that era of history.

“This was all happening and all being done within the shadow of the second French Revolution in 1848,” said Charles Nolan, Director of Sacred Music and Instructor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. “Viewing the text in that light, there are some interesting things that relate into that, particularly [when] looking at a translation of the French, it reflects very much on people’s pride. There’s definitely some interesting juxtapositions with the idea that the second French Revolution is brewing right around this this time.”

In the original French, one line of the canticle reads: It is to your pride that God preaches / Bow your heads before the Redeemer. Indeed, given the social tensions in years before the French Revolution, the song faced a colorful array of criticisms from across the ideological spectrum. Even so, the song continued to grow in popularity across France and Europe, which was not surprising, given Adam’s adept ear for writing popular music.

“Adolphe Adam was not a church musician, and in fact, his father was a composer as well and didn’t necessarily want his son to follow in his footsteps,” Nolen said. “But then he became a composer and music critic and he was mostly known for his ballets, and it may be one of the keys to its popularity, is the fact that Adam was writing popular music at the time. He was writing for public consumption of ballets. He was very intimately acquainted with what the public liked and wanted from music.”

As the song continued to grow in popularity around the world, it eventually caught the attention of a Unitarian minister by the name of John Sullivan Dwight in 1855. Dwight translated the poem into English using the lyrics we all now know and love, and the rest, as they say, is history. Thus, Cantique de Noël became more widely known as “O Holy Night.”

Looking at the text, I think about how much we want as human beings what’s in this text. We want his love. We want his gospel of peace. We want all oppression to cease.”

Charles nolen

To this day, “O Holy Night” is sung at Christian churches of all denominations around the world and it remains a much-anticipated high point of the Christmas celebration. Its power lies not only within its elegant lyricism but also within the music of the piece itself. Nolen describes the main melody as one that continually rises and falls, imitating Christ’s descension to earth in the form of an innocent child; a simple act of divine power. These ideas are reflected in Adam’s composition.

“The apex of the piece is when we hear ‘O night,’ and it’s not just some other night, it’s the Night Divine and through the repetition as it’s moving down, [Adam] is painting that idea of the Night Divine when Christ was born,” Nolen explained. “And again, that idea, the melody starts high on ‘night’ and then as we get to the birth of Christ, the melody comes down. It’s this this continual motion of reminding ourselves, if you will, of God’s condescension to us in human form.”

Christmas presents an opportunity each year to truly reflect upon what is most important in people’s lives. Family, friends, food and gifts are all joyful and important parts of the season, but it bespeaks something deeper that an explicitly Christian holiday is such a stronghold of the world’s cultural celebrations.  What Jesus brought on Christmas transcends words, but “O Holy Night,” in its beauty, puts to music what words cannot do justice.

“Looking at the text, I think about how much we want as human beings what’s in this text. We want his love. We want his gospel of peace. We want all oppression to cease,” Nolen said.

The words and music of “O Holy Night” serve as poignant a reminder not only of the ultimate source of true, unbridled love, joy, hope and peace, but also of humanity’s universal longing for it. This is where the power and significance of “O Holy Night” ultimately lies.

“In a certain sense, in the humanity of the people who composed the poem, composed the music, composed the English translation, there is a longing that we as human beings have that is being expressed in this text,”  Nolen concluded. “Think about when our churches are most filled. It really speaks in a universal sense to what we’re all longing for, whether we know it or not, I think that’s part of what the popularity of it is, that in 1847, in 1947, and I’ll say in 2047, the words are still going to have a personal meaning to people.” 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.