In 1843, in a small town in Southern France, the church organ had newly been renovated and too celebrate the event, the parish priest asked a wine merchant and poet named Placide Cappeau, a native of the town, to write a Christmas poem. He had never had any interest in religion, but Cappeau obliged. Soon afterwards that same year, Adolphe Adam composed the music and “Oh Holy Night” was born in it’s original French. In 1855, a Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight, translated the song into English lyrics. (1)
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
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
O night divine o night
O night divine.
On this Holy night, we celebrate and remember the birth of Christ AND we are reminded of the gift that we too are given once again. As the children’s presentation showed us, each nativity set brings us – the people of today’s world – to the manger. As the shepherd and the kings marvel at the baby Jesus, we too, are there! Looking in awe, weeping in thanksgiving and wondering what will happen tomorrow. We ordinary people are the recipients of an unbelievable gift in this child.
This gift is for US! This baby is for US! This salvation is for US!
This gift given to us would not have been possible without the holy parents: Mary and Joseph. We begin with Mary:
I am a girl, a faithful Jew from Nazareth. When I heard of my pregnancy I was living with my parents, awaiting the final stages of my betrothal. In my culture, a marriage begins with a betrothal, a promise made before witnesses, between two families, but the marriage doesn’t begin until after about a year, when all the details are settled and we go through another ceremony, the marriage ceremony. I was young and unmarried when the angel Gabriel spoke to me. I’d never heard of such a thing before, except from the stories of the holy scriptures, but one evening the angel appeared and told me I was to give birth to the Messiah, the Savior of the world! I was astonished as you can imagine. How is this possible? I am only a girl! I am not living with my husband! How can I be with child? And the angel told me my baby would be special – not born of only earthly matter but of heavenly matter as well! My baby would be God made flesh! Then the angel told me to go and visit my relative Elizabeth – she was barren and was now with child, also. And so I did. And she was. And I was convinced that something special was happening to us.
Mary’s realization that “something special was happening” led to the Mary’s elegantly exuberant prayer, The Magnificat. found in the gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 46-49:
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Even through her fear, her reluctance, her doubt, Mary unwrapped the small bit of joy that came through her pregnancy. It wasn’t the perfect situation to be in: unmarried and pregnant with a baby who was not the child of the man she was engaged to. Now, remember that the penalty for adultery was stoning – so Mary faced death at the announcement of her pregnancy. AND YET, even with the threat of death… still she sang “Glory to God!”
That is Mary, finding the joy in the most complicated and conflicted time.
And then we move to the earthly father:
She was just a girl and we were ready to be married. Then she comes to me and tells me she is pregnant! As you could imagine I was devastated. How could this happen? Everything was going well – we were on track to become married. And then all of the sudden she is pregnant! So I decided to back out quietly… our marriage was not complete, although we’d been betrothed for almost a year, I cared for her and did not want to humiliate her, so I thought, “If I just back off, she can continue this path and I will be free to go my own way.” Then an angel spoke to me while I was dreaming and told me not to be afraid. That I could marry her and be the father of this special baby. That, even though I was not his true father, I could raise and love and support this baby and help him to be the person God wants him to be. And when I woke I went to Mary’s side and stayed there.
Joseph, in some ways, is more like us than Mary. Joseph is told: something great is going to happen and you can be a part of it… but you will have to give up some of your preconceived notions, and swallow some pride, and make some sacrifices, but if and when you do these things – you can be a major part of this miracle!
So Joseph and Mary took their place in the story – they accepted their roles to this baby and to the world and said “We’re in! Let’s do this!” But it was not as easy as just sitting back and having a baby. Their path to the manger led them seventy miles from Nazareth, face to face with the Roman Government, and over treacherous terrain to the birth of Jesus.
Because of the government’s requirement for registration, Joseph and Mary made the seventy-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem at a very inopportune time in Mary’s pregnancy. Unlike transportation of today, the journey on foot and by donkey probably took about five days (2): five days of walking; five days of seeking shelter and food; five days without the comforts of home, traveling over difficult and treacherous terrain; five days to get to Bethlehem.
It wasn’t a perfect way to prepare for his birth. It wasn’t free of stress and worry. It wasn’t ideal – at an ideal location, with all the right people, with all the proper equipment, but what would come out of this imperfect situation: was the perfect God.
And so they went to Bethlehem… to bear a son who would usher in a new era of peace and love and joy and hope – all the things we still look forward to today.
On this holy night, let us celebrate his birth in the spirit of Jesus’ life: with joy, love, acceptance of and compassion toward others, and may we rejoice in our salvation! The salvation that comes wrapped in the package of a baby. Amen.
- Wikipedia, found on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Holy_Night
2. J. Ellsworth Kalas, Christmas from the Back Side, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003, 47.