“His Word My Hope Secures”

Do you have a favorite hymn? Hymns may not be as popular as they once were – there’s been some wonderful new worship music written in the last 25 years or so – but the old familiar standards are still very popular. “How Great Thou Art,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “It is Well,” “Blessed Assurance,” and other old favorites are always in the “Top Ten” of the most loved church songs.

And, of course, “Amazing Grace.” How that hymn came into being and who wrote it, as well as how it has been transmitted down to us, make for a fascinating story.

The song was written by the former captain of a slave ship, John Newton. He was born in London on July 24, 1725, the son of a ship’s captain and a Puritan mother. Unfortunately, his mother died when John was only seven years old. His father, who was gone much of the time, remarried, and left John in the care of a stepmother who pretty much let him do whatever he wanted to do. When he was eleven, he went to sea with his father. Later, he was pressed into duty aboard a British warship as a junior midshipman. He deserted, was captured, publicly flogged, and demoted from officer to a common seaman.

John Newton (1725-1807) was a former slave ship captain, and later, a minister in the Church of England and a prolific songwriter of many hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”

Later he became a servant to the captain of a slave ship and was engaged in the “Triangular Trade.” This was the common practice of cargo ships that would sail from England to West Africa, carrying manufactured goods. They would offload those items and take aboard freshly captured slaves, then sail to America. There, they would sell the slaves and load up with sugar, rum, and spices, for the trip back to England, where the whole process would start over. By his own admission, John was a very rough customer – his language was known to be so vulgar and coarse that even the other sailors were embarrassed. Eventually he became captain of his own vessel.

He became a Christian in 1748, after one particularly violent storm in the North Atlantic when it looked as if the ship would be lost with all hands. They managed to survive, and John became a believer. He continued in the slave trade for a while, but later, he became convinced that it was evil and morally reprehensible; how could he, as a believer in God and a follower of Jesus, be part of a system that treated others, also created in the Image of God, in such a brutal and inhuman fashion? He was ordained as a minister in the Church of England, and eventually became good friends with a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. The two men began working together to abolish the slave trade.

Newton had always been a prolific writer, so with the help of a friend, William Cowper, they began writing new hymns for use in their congregation. They averaged writing a song every week, and so it was, for the first service of the new year 1773, 250 years ago this month, Newton published these words:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.

‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear,
And Grace, my fears relieved!
How precious did that Grace appear,
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far,
And Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Originally there was no specific tune for the song. That was not unusual; in those days, it was common for lyrics to be written to a particular meter, and any one of several different tunes that fit that meter could be used. But a generation later, the words came to this country and became popular in Virginia, Georgia, and elsewhere in the South. No one is completely sure when, but it is believed that churches began using a popular melody that had originally been from a song sung by slaves. This is the tune that we still sing today. Also in the early 1800s, the song picked up several new verses, including these familiar lines:

When we've been there ten thousand years,
   Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
   Than when we'd first begun.

Newton lived long enough to see his friend Wilberforce get a bill passed in Parliament on May 1, 1807, that was the first step towards outlawing the slave trade in England. John Newton died just a few months later. If the familiar melody that we know was indeed originally from a tune used by slaves, it is truly a demonstration of God’s grace, that the words written by a former slave trader should be combined with a melody from enslaved people, to become the hymn that we still know and love.

Today, John Newton is recognized for the enduring hymn that he gave us, and for one other piece of wisdom. Very late in his life, he remarked, “My memory is fading, but two things I remember very clearly: I was a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.”

Rediscovering an Old Friend

As far back as I can remember, music has been a big part of my life. In our home, when I was growing up, my mom always had either the radio or the record player going, and we listened to a lot of music of all kinds. Gospel (especially Southern Gospel), Country, Big Band, Western Swing – Jim Reeves, Ray Price, The Florida Boys, The Blackwood Brothers, the Happy Goodman Family, The Glenn Miller Band, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Mom had been a trumpet player and high school drum major in her younger days, and she developed a love of many different kinds of music that she maintained her whole life. In addition, she had a strong alto voice and for many years sang in a ladies’ quartet at church. I can still remember sitting next to her in church and hearing her as she sang the harmony on hymns and the old-time camp meeting songs.

My dad’s musical tastes were somewhat simpler. As far as he was concerned, there were only two kinds of music – country, and western. George Jones was one of his favorites – the “Possum” was a native of our corner of SE Texas – but dad also loved Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean. Dad had picked a guitar in his younger days, and always greatly enjoyed times when my brothers would get out their acoustic guitars and other instruments and lead out in a jam session around the living room, or around a campfire.

Like mom, I also listened to a lot of various kinds of music. When I was riding with friends in their cars, we would listen to the Beatles and other famous bands. I had one friend who was really into this Blues-Rock garage band from the Houston area that was just getting started – their first paying gig was the Junior-Senior Prom at a neighboring high school. A little group known as “Z.Z. Top.” But I listened to a lot of Chicago and the Doobie Brothers. Also like mom, I also liked classical music, and listened to a lot of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. And like dad, I enjoyed several different country artists, especially Glen Campbell. But one of my favorites was Tom T. Hall.

Tom T. Hall (1936-2021) was a Hall of Fame Country music singer, songwriter, guitar player. He was known as “The Storyteller.”

Tom T. Hall was born in 1936 in a place called Tick Ridge, Kentucky, and grew up playing “hillbilly” music (as it was then known). He was worked as a part-time musician, served a tour in the Army in the late 50s and worked as a DJ and radio announcer before moving to Nashville in 1964, with a job as a songwriter. He wrote songs for many other artists before having a monster hit in 1968, with the song “Harper Valley PTA,” released by Jeannie C. Riley. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the nickname of “The Storyteller.”

My introduction to his music came through my Uncle Rusty, who sang Hall’s song, “The Ballad of Forty Dollars.” I thought it was a pretty good story, and I started paying more attention to Hall’s music when it would come on the radio. Another favorite from those days was “The Monkey Who Became President.” The coach who was my driver’s ed instructor was a country music fan, and I remember listening to that song when it was my turn behind the wheel.

Another favorite was the classic, “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine.” It’s a true story about an actual conversation he had with a man in a hotel bar one night in Miami – honest storytelling at its best. His songs ranged from the funny (“Faster Horses”) to the sweet (“I Love”) to the bittersweet (“Homecoming”), with everything in between.

I stopped listening to his music at some point – I don’t know why. I was probably in college at the time and decided I was too “cool” to listen to country anymore, or something stupid like that. By that point in my life, I was really into The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, and a picker from Kentucky who sang simple ballads just didn’t seem to fit. But then, as sometimes happens in our lives, something occurs that will re-expose us to things we used to enjoy, and we may find that we still like them.

Recently, I was watching the HBO series, The Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin, with Kathy and our friend, Loren, and one of the characters was listening to Hall’s song, “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Honestly, I didn’t know the song, so I went on iTunes (something we didn’t have back in my younger days!) and found it. While I was there, I rediscovered and downloaded a bunch of his stuff, which I have been listening ever since. It’s still good, and I’ll give him the last word:

That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime,
  Of old dogs and children and watermelon wine.

“Chains Shall He Break…”

I have been reading recently about a controversy involving a well-loved Christmas carol and the mistaken claims that some of its lyrics, and especially the third verse, are a recent invention. Let me tell you the story behind this great hymn. (Parts of this material were adapted from Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins, Copyright © 2001, Andrew Collins, published by Zondervan.)

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had a reputation as a poet. Although he was not a regular churchgoer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a melody for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church; meanwhile, French church officials discovered that the music had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, without musical taste, and completely lacking in “the spirit of religion.”

That might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique” –

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 power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when he was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. Troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

I love this carol, and it often moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, but also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Jesus in breaking the chains of sin and injustice. And not just on December 25, but throughout the year.

That really is the best way of “keeping Christ in Christmas.”

Mr. Spafford’s Testimony

H.G. Spafford was a force in Chicago in the early 1870s. He was a wealthy, senior partner in a major law firm, a real estate developer, and a devout elder in his Presbyterian Church. He and his wife Anna loved to entertain guests in their comfortable home, and they became friends and supporters of the world-famous Chicago minister Dwight L. Moody. They were the parents of a son and four daughters.

Chicago lawyer and businessman Horatio G. Spafford. Spafford was a devout elder in the Presbyterian Church. In the 1870s, he and his wife Anna were the parents of five children.

In 1870, their four-year-old son, Horatio, Junior, died suddenly of scarlet fever. Then in October of 1871, a massive fire swept through downtown Chicago and the city’s north side, where Mr. Spafford was heavily invested in a real estate development. The immense blaze cost over 300 lives and left more than 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. Even though their entire investment was gone, and being close to ruin financially themselves, the Spaffords nevertheless continued to demonstrate Christian hospitality, showing the love of Jesus in the face of tragedy.

Two years later, in 1873, Horatio and his wife decided they would take their four daughters and go to Europe for a lengthy visit. Even though his business interests had been hit hard in the national Financial Panic of 1873, Horatio and Anna intended to help their friend, Evangelist D.L. Moody, who was then planning an extended evangelistic crusade in England. The family booked space on the steamship SS Ville du Havre, but last-minute business complications forced Horatio to remain in Chicago. The plan then was for Anna and the four daughters – 11-year-old Anna, 9-year-old Margaret Lee, 5-year-old Elizabeth, and 2-year-old Tanetta – to go on, and Mr. Spafford would join them as soon as he could.

On November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship, the freighter Loch Earn. The passenger ship sank in only 12 minutes, and 226 people died in the disaster – including all four of the Spafford daughters. Only 61 passengers and 26 crew members survived, but miraculously, one of those rescued was Anna Spafford. She was found unconscious, floating on a piece of timber. She would later tell a fellow survivor, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.” When the rescued passengers reached Cardiff, Wales, Anna sent a telegram back to her husband that read, “Saved alone.”

Horatio booked passage to rejoin his devasted wife. A few days later, as they were on their way across the Atlantic, the captain of the vessel summoned Mr. Spafford to the bridge and told him, “We are now passing over the spot where the Ville du Havre went down.” Mr. Spafford went back to his cabin and began to think of his four young daughters, dying in those cold waters, three miles deep. And then he began to write,

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
   When sorrows, like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well (it is well) with my soul (with my soul),
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Later, when American hymnist Philip P. Bliss wrote a melody for Mr. Spafford’s words, he named the tune after the ill-fated liner, calling it “Ville du Havre.” It was first published in 1876. Personally, I particularly appreciate the verse that says –

My sin - oh the bliss of this glorious thought! -
   My sin - not in part, but the whole -
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more:
   Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

The hymn, of course, is still sung to this day, and we continue to hear Mr. Spafford’s testimony through its message, so let me respectfully suggest something. The next time you sing this song, take a moment and reflect on Horatio and Anna Spafford. Remember the tragedy they suffered, then give thanks to God who has used their incredible faith in such a beautiful way over the years, to create a hymn that gives us such a powerful testimony. May we be encouraged, and may our faith be strengthened, so that we can join in and affirm with them, from our hearts: It is well with my soul.

The Secret of Christmas

First of all, I want to dedicate this week’s column to my wife’s late dad, Frank Rolens. Frank was a wonderful, gentle, Godly man, a great husband and father, and a World War II veteran. He was originally from Granby, Missouri, where his father was a physician. Granby is a tiny community near Joplin, in the southwest corner of the “Show-Me” state. Kathy’s mom Helen was from Neosho, another town near there, and they were married after he came home from the service.

Frank Rolens (1925-1995) in his World War II uniform.
He served in the European Theatre of Operations and was part of the
Allied Occupation Force that helped “de-nazify” Germany after the war.

Frank was not a pilot, but he LOVED flying, and spent most of his working life in the airline industry – 39 years of it with American Airlines. He told me that when he first started in that industry, he worked as a gate agent at a small airport, taking tickets, loading luggage, and directing pilots on where to park the planes. He did other jobs over the years, of course, and ended up in a department called “Flight Information.”

Back in the days when airlines still cared about, you know, real customer service, if you were having trouble making reservations or connections, your call would get transferred to “Flight Information.” An agent there – Frank or one of his co-workers – would help you navigate all of the different flight options, even putting you on another carrier’s planes, if that was what was needed to get you to your destination.

Frank served as an elder at Kathy’s home church in Bedford, where their family had been charter members of that congregation when it was established. That church’s name has changed over the years, but Kathy’s sister and her husband are still members there.

On top of all that, he was a terrific father-in-law and friend to me. He passed away in 1995. December 16 was his birthday. Frank loved to sing, especially men’s barbershop singing, and he was a big fan of the group known as the “Vocal Majority.” Now, if you’re not familiar with the Vocal Majority, they are a men’s chorus of about 150 guys who sing in classic “Barbershop” harmony. They are based in Dallas and have won numerous international singing competitions.

Back in 1982, radio station KVIL in Dallas released the first of what would become a series of Christmas recordings. This album, and the later CDs, contained some really beautiful Christmas songs – some old favorites, some newer material – and featured artists from the D/FW and North Texas area. One of my favorites was a recording by the Vocal Majority of “The Secret of Christmas.” I had never heard the song before, but it turns out it was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for Bing Crosby to sing in the 1959 movie, “Say One for Me.” Besides Der Bingle, the song has been covered by numerous artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews, and Johnny Mathis, but the VM’s version remains my favorite. If you would like to watch and listen to them perform this song, you can follow this link.

A lot of people talk about finding and holding on to the true “Spirit” of Christmas – qualities such as joy, generosity, hope, and surrounding yourself with loved ones. But the fact is, these are qualities that Christians ought to embody throughout the entire year. That certainly fits with this song.

So, in Frank’s honor, and to brighten your holidays, here are the lyrics for “The Secret of Christmas.”

It's not the glow you feel
  When snow appears,
It's not the Christmas card
  You've sent for years.
-
Not the joyful sound
  When sleigh bells ring,
Or the merry songs
  Children sing.
-
The little gift you send
  On Christmas day
Will not bring back the friend
  You've turned away.
-
So may I suggest, the secret of Christmas
  Is not the things you do at Christmas time –
But the Christmas things you do
  All year through.

Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet. I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding. And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas. Not the commercialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course. Those things, I did and do despise. But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends. Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke. Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite). Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks for the Word became flesh.

And the music. The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing. So, in celebration of the season, here are some thoughts about three of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.

O Holy Night

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular churchgoer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France. Over the years, its popularity has risen and fallen, but it remains one of my personal favorites.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This song from the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a musical starring Judy Garland, Leon Ames, and Mary Astor, and directed by Judy Garland’s future husband, Vincente Minelli. The story deals with a prosperous attorney who is planning to move his family from St. Louis to New York – in spite of the family’s opposition. In the movie on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland sings this song to her little sister, portrayed by the very precocious Margaret O’Brien.

Originally, the song was supposed to be very bitter and sarcastic – even including the lyric, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.” But Garland refused to sing such a grim line, and her opposition inspired the songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane to come up with the more optimistic, “let your heart be light.”

Hallelujah Chorus (from the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah)

“Messiah” is an English-language oratorio composed by Georg Frederic Handel in 1741. The words were compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Version of the Bible. The work was in three major parts: Part 1 deals with prophecies about the birth of Jesus taken from the book of Isaiah and other Old Testament passages, as well as a brief section from the Gospels. Part 2 deals with the Passion of the Christ and ends with the “Hallelujah” Chorus; Part 3 covers the resurrection and His glorification in heaven. Parts 1 and 2 make up the “Christmas” portion of the oratorio, and are often performed, either in part or in whole, during the holiday season.

I was first exposed to “Messiah” as a freshman in college when our choir sang the Christmas portion with a local high school orchestra. The “Hallelujah” Chorus is an amazing work, with four vocal parts singing back and forth to each other – “And He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings! Forever and ever! and Lord of Lords! Hallelujah!” – all while the orchestral strings, brass, and drums are furiously praising God with their instruments.

It’s tradition that audiences will rise to their feet during “Hallelujah.” The legend is that at the oratorio’s London debut, King James II was overcome with emotion during its performance, and sensing the Presence of God in the music, he rose to his feet, for even royalty must stand in the presence of Divinity.

It’s Christmas time. Who’s ready to sing?

Where Were You?

This weekend marks the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on our country. In keeping with that solemn occasion, I want to do something a little different for my column this week.

This song Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) was written by country music superstar Alan Jackson. I think he did a masterful job of expressing the wide range of emotions and reactions that many of us experienced on that day – anger, grief, shock and horror; from pride at the bravery of the first responders, to amazement at the courage of those gutsy passengers who fought back against the terrorists on Flight 93. The song received multiple honors, including being named “Song of the Year” and “Single of the Year” by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music; it also won a Grammy award for “Country Music Song of the Year.”

The song is on the program for Friday’s anniversary ceremony at the Haskell County Courthouse.

God bless America.

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you in the yard with your wife and children
Or working on some stage in L.A.?

Did you stand there in shock
At the sight of that black smoke
Risin’ against that blue sky?
Did you shout out in anger
In fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry?

Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones
Pray for the ones who don’t know?
Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble
And sob for the ones left below?

Did you burst out with pride
For the red, white and blue
And the heroes who died
Just doin’ what they do?

Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer
And look at yourself and what really matters?

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN
But I’m not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Teaching a class full of innocent children
Or driving down some cold interstate?

Did you feel guilty
’Cause you’re a survivor
In a crowded room did you feel alone?
Did you call up your mother
And tell her you loved her?
Did you dust off that Bible at home?

Did you open your eyes, hope it never happened
Close your eyes and not go to sleep?
Did you notice the sunset the first time in ages
Or speak to some stranger on the street?

Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow
Go out and buy you a gun?
Did you turn off that violent old movie you’re watchin’
And turn on “I Love Lucy” reruns?

Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers
Stand in line and give your own blood?
Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family
Thank God you had somebody to love?

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN
But I’m not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN
But I’m not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

And the greatest is love
And the greatest is love

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church; meanwhile, French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”

Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress…

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

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 power and glory, Ever more proclaim!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.