Today’s devotional is by Matthew Winning.
"One December evening, as their trading ship struggled to make headway across the rough Atlantic Ocean, sailors working for the American United Fruit Company would’ve been shocked to hear a new sound coming from their radio. The usual piercing beeps and dots of Morse code were instead replaced with a quiet violin playing the sweet melody of a Christmas carol, ‘O Holy Night’. This was the first radio broadcast as we know it, and it was recorded by Reginald Fessenden on Christmas Eve 1906, followed by a reading of Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”.
I don’t know if the sailors made it home in time for Christmas or not, but as they stopped and listened to that brief recording, I imagine that few sentences could better summarise what they were feeling than one of the opening lines of the carol: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.” I love these words because I think they capture what most of us feel on the countdown to Christmas – certainly what I feel – “a thrill of hope”.
I don’t know if the sailors made it home in time for Christmas or not, but as they stopped and listened to that brief recording, I imagine that few sentences could better summarise what they were feeling than one of the opening lines of the carol: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.” I love these words because I think they capture what most of us feel on the countdown to Christmas – certainly what I feel – “a thrill of hope”.
The words of ‘O Holy Night’, written around half a century before their debut on radio, capture the common Christmas theme of hope but on a grander, more global scale than we’re normally familiar with.
Originally written in French by poet Placide Cappeau, the words set the scene of the night of Jesus’ birth. It was a dark night illuminated by “stars… brightly shining”; a dark night awaiting “a new and glorious morn”. For Cappeau, the skies above reflect the spiritual state of the world below. Long lay the world increasingly in sin and error and weariness, awaiting the light of a Saviour to come.
The spiritual state of the world prior to Jesus’ birth is recorded in the scriptures. Chosen by God, the Jewish people were to be the light and example of the knowledge of God and salvation to the nations walking in darkness, but instead they turned their backs on God and worshipped false idols. Their kings ruled harshly and their rich oppressed the poor. Their nation, once a place of praise and blessing, became divided, exiled, enslaved and derelict. In Israel, and the surrounding nations, sin and weariness abounded as the world waited in hope. And then, one holy night, a light shone in the darkness (and the darkness has not overcome it). A Saviour was born.
It’s notable that Cappeau uses the title, “Saviour”. Though not a religious man, Cappeau seemingly understood the Biblical significance of Jesus’ birth. The promise of a rescuer was rooted in the Bible from the very beginning. It was promised that this rescuer would crush the head of the serpent in the garden, the devil, and yet His heel would bruise in doing so. A child would be born, a Son given, who would be called “mighty God”. A king would come, rescuing His people from their enemies, and yet their biggest enemies would be their own sin and death.
Ironically, most of the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ day, whose community wrote and read these promises, missed their fulfilment when He was staring them in the face, almost like reading every road sign carefully and then missing your destination. And yet there were others, even from outside the Jewish community, who recognised their dear Saviour when He was born. They were waiting for Him, and when He arrived, their souls felt their worth. That’s what worship is. To know deeply that the worth of this new born baby far surpasses that of any person or thing to have existed before, and to act accordingly. To join the angels in proclaiming that worth. To kneel as a willing servant to the new born King, whose law is love and whose gospel is peace.
The three verses of this carol sort of move chronologically, the first verse describing the atmosphere on the night of Christ’s birth, with a reflection on His life and teachings to come in verse 3. However, in verse 2, Cappeau brings us to the visitors around Jesus’ manger.
Perhaps Cappeau sees us caught up with the shepherds in the first two lines? The humble shepherds of Israel, who believed the message of the angels. Who believed that a Saviour had been born and that even they, as lowly as they were, could benefit from the gospel of peace He offers. However, our attention is then turned to other visitors. Although “the light of faith” from the shepherds parallels the gleaming light of the star guiding these other visitors, these two groups are very different. Even as an infant, the Lord Jesus brought together both the simple and the wise; the humble and the grand; the local Jewish native and the astrologers from the east, a place often associated with enmity, distance and separation from God throughout the story of the Bible.
Assyria and Babylon were nations in the east, the ancient enemies of Israel. This new born baby, and the visitors He attracted, marked the return of those alienated from God, the reconciliation of those once opposed to God, even in a small way which would grow globally. The promise that the offspring of Israel would bless the nations would come to fruition in this baby. And He would bless the nations by defeating their greatest enemies: sin and death. He would defeat them by taking them upon Himself for anyone who believes. He suffered the greatest trial of all, not just death on a cross, but guilt and punishment under God’s wrath instead of all who trust Him.
However, before that would come to pass, this baby boy lies in weakness and vulnerability, and yet, at the same time, King, not only of Israel but of the world. What a picture of the sort of king He is. A king who refuses to stand aloof from those in need. Instead, “he knows our need”. He knows what it’s like to suffer since He suffered himself, from a baby born in poverty to a man later mocked, abandoned and crucified. He’s a King who, rather than condemning the guilty, instead shows compassion. In all our trials, He was born to be our friend because He has suffered those trials with us. Except our greatest trial. He suffered that trial for us.
The last verse looks forward to the man this baby would grow up to become and the legacy He would leave. Truly, He taught us to love one another, even to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us; an attitude He himself demonstrated by reasoning with the religious leaders who mocked and rejected Him and praying for the roman soldiers’ forgiveness as they violently crucified Him. As a result, Christians around the world have sought to follow in their Master’s footsteps, albeit imperfectly, loving their enemies, forgiving those who wrong them, and pioneering in charity, missionary projects and humanitarian aid efforts to feed to hungry, clothe the poor and bring justice to the oppressed. Christians were the first to treat the slave as their brother, abolishing slavery in the UK and US and seeking to continue that work across the world.
But Jesus didn’t literally break any chains or free any slaves during His life on earth. Instead, the Bible speaks of a slavery harsher than anything we know and an oppression deadlier than anything in history – in fact, something which transcends history – and it’s the slavery referenced to earlier. “Everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin”, as Jesus himself said (John 8:34). In other words, the human condition is that of rebellion against God in thought, speech and action, trapped and oppressed under guilt and threatened with the reality of sin’s consequences. And yet, as we have seen, the divine response to the human condition is love. It’s to send us a rescuer. A dear Saviour, the night of whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.
Something I noticed for the first time when looking at the lyrics of this carol is that the verses are descriptive and the refrain between them is prescriptive. It’s as if the lyricist is telling us, “Listen to all these things about Jesus. Listen to what He’s done for us, and now (the refrain) fall on your knees and hear the angel voices… behold your king, before him lowly bend… Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever!” This is surely the only response to the love that He’s shown for us, not in order to gain acceptance from God like a slave, but with the assurance of acceptance already as a son. Surely this is the most appropriate response to that gift of grace so free and so infinite? “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”.
‘O Holy Night’ tells us that a Saviour has come, a rescuer defeating sin and death, offering to swap places with whoever will believe. A King who knows our need and is no stranger to our weaknesses. So, what is your response this Christmas? This King will rule forever, but only those who trust in Him will be in His eternal kingdom as His forgiven people, with the rest separated from Him. Do you feel the weight of your sin this Christmas? Are you weary and do you long for peace with God and hope for the future? Are you burdened and long for joy? If that’s you, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28)."