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Any discussion of Christmas carols is bound to bring out varying opinions as to their relative merits and each person’s very favorite. Perhaps the most beautiful carol and the one that shows off superior vocal talent the best is O Holy Night. A link to a recording of the song is included at the end of this post. You can judge for yourself and hopefully will enjoy it as part of your celebration of the Christmas season.
But for now, I am focusing on the lyrics and a bit of the history of the carol. After all, my blog is about ideas in the areas of Christianity and transgender. I am not a music critic or a professional musician of any kind.
There are a few ironies in the origin of the carol. In 1843, the lyrics were written first as a poem. The poem was written at the request of the parish priest of Roquemaure, a little town in the wine region of south France. But the poem, without music, was to be part of a celebration of the recent renovation of the church organ. The name of the parish priest and his reason to commission a poem instead of a hymn or carol to be played on the organ are lost to history.
Also intriguing was the priest’s choice to write the poem. He asked Placide Cappeau, known more for his interest in wine as a merchant and minor official than for his interest in church. In fact, during his life he held anticlerical and atheist views. But he was also known as a poet and in this small town of only a few thousand people, perhaps was considered the best.
Cappeau found inspiration for the lyrics in the account of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, the most detailed description found in the Bible. Despite his personal views, not only did he write these beloved lyrics based on his imagination of what it must have been like to be present on that night on that most holy occasion, he soon came to believe that his poem deserved to be set to music.
Cappeau had no musical background, perhaps in part due to the fact that his right hand was amputated due to a childhood accident. So he enlisted the help of a composer. Considering Cappeau’s beliefs, his choice of his friend, Adolphe Adam, was not surprising. Adam was known for his popular music written for the vaudeville houses of Paris, as well as being a prolific composer of operas and ballets during his career. In addition to O Holy Night, he is probably best known for his ballet, Giselle.
There is one other ironic fact about the choice of Adam as the composer of this beautiful hymn. While every indication is that he was quite secular, his ancestry was Jewish. Even though he neither celebrated Christmas nor believed that Jesus is the Son of God, he quickly accepted the musical challenge of setting the poem to music.
The carol made its debut in Roquemaure at the Christmas Eve mass in 1847, just three weeks after the work was completed to the satisfaction of Adam and Cappeau. It is no surprise that the beautiful carol soon became popular with the French public and was quickly accepted within the Roman Catholic Church in France.
That acceptance evaporated when Cappeau publicly walked away from the church to become part of the socialist movement and Adam’s Jewish heritage became known. Suddenly, narrow minded Catholic clerics were denouncing the carol as bad music with irreligious lyrics. Their attempts to besmirch the song were unsuccessful. The French people couldn’t be fooled and they continued to enjoy singing and listening to O Holy Night.
The popularity of the carol spread to the northern part of the United States when it was translated into English in 1855. The translator was John Sullivan Dwight. Trained as a minister, the Boston native quickly turned his career interest toward music as a critic and journalist in the field, helping to shape American tastes toward European classical music. He was also an ardent abolitionist. It was the third and final verse that caught his attention as bearing a message consistent with the abolitionist cause. (Sometimes, the second verse is omitted and this powerful verse becomes the second and final verse.) His translation reads as follows:
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.
In my lifetime, and particularly in the last two years as I have come out to people within the Christian community and debated with some, I have learned that there is a wife rift in the Christian church regarding transgender. As we looked at some of the history of O Holy Night, we have seen that rifts like these are nothing new. Will the church be narrow-minded or open minded? Exclusive or inclusive? Self-righteous or humble? Oppressive or working for justice? Enslaving and legalistic or freedom-loving and gracious?
Some Christians got it that slavery is wrong, but some didn’t. Some Christians got it that racial prejudice is wrong, but some didn’t. Some Christians understand that we should oppose the oppression of other people, but some seem to think that the Christian church should oppress other people. And some Christians understand that it is wrong to oppress and be prejudiced against transgender people. Still some do not.
Quite frankly, it puzzles me how many Christians over the years have not understood why the Son of God came to earth. He was quite clear about it when He announced His ministry in His home synagogue in Nazareth. He announced it by reading from the prophet Isaiah. As it is recorded in Luke’s Gospel:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. – Luke 4:18-21
Most Christians can quote John 3:16 by heart. But do they know the next verse? It also speaks to the purpose of Christ’s ministry.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
And yet too many Christians are quick to condemn, or to turn their backs on the needy, or to be indifferent to the plight of marginalized people, or to wound rather than heal, or to bring oppression rather than seek deliverance. Quite frankly, one is too many, but there are far more than one.
Three years ago when I began my transition journey, and for many years before that once Internet searches became meaningful, I was able to find only one other transgender Christian to communicate with. And she is still deep in the closet. But now, I am beginning to hear from others who reside in the precarious penumbra of the planet Mercury, that narrow band of the Venn diagram where these two communities overlap. And I am hearing from devout people of other faiths whose religious communities rebuke them for being transgender. The letters are heart wrenching in terms of the oppression and rejection and loss these people face. I hope and pray that I am helping each one in a meaningful way. I will discuss this further in another post soon.
Eventually, most Christians understood Christ’s message about slavery. Eventually most Christians understood Christ’s opposition to racial prejudice. More and more Christians are understanding that Christ does not want His church to oppress people, but instead promote justice for all. I also hope and pray that most Christians will understand that those of us who are truly transgender are born this way, that there is no sin involved and absolutely no reason to rebuke and reject us on this basis.
For now, please enjoy this beautiful carol. I cry tears of joy to hear it. I pray it will become as much of an anthem to the cause of transgender justice as it was for the abolitionist cause some 160 years ago.