Dietrich Bonhoeffer My series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth continues with the Advent edition. The carol I’ve selected for the week is, strictly speaking, not an Advent carol, but a Christmas carol. However, this being the start of the second week of Advent, the theme is Peace, and I’ve selected a carol about peace: O Holy Night. I realize I’ve written about this week’s carol before — twice last year. Once giving a nod to the hymn’s origin and once to plug a beautiful version of the song from the now-defunct Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

The hymn was written by Placide Cappeau, a French wine merchant, as “Cantique de Noel”, a poem commissioned for Christmas mass in 1847. It was set to music shortly after by Cappeau’s friend Adolphe Charles Adams, and by 1855 had been translated into many languages — into English by American abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight.

In 1906, O Holy Night became the first piece of music ever broadcast on radio:

Reginald Fessenden, a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would. Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle, hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel. Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, Fessenden read another selection from the book of Luke: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.” The Christmas program was picked up as far south as Norfolk, Virginia; when the program was repeated on New Year’s Eve, it was heard as far away as the West Indies.

O Holy Night is a radical piece of music with a radical history, not least of which includes the concept of equality with slaves. (RSS readers may need to click through) Start the music and read the lyrics….

O Holy Night

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt His worth

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder beams a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine! O night when Christ was born!
O night divine! O night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming
Here came the wise men from the Orient land

The King of Kings lay in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend
He knows our need
To our weakness no stranger
Behold your King! before the lowly bend!
Behold your King! before Him bend!

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 rise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord
Then ever, ever praise we
His pow’r and glory ever more proclaim
His pow’r and glory ever more proclaim

There are alternate lyrics to the song, but the last verse I’ve quoted here is in no small part what makes this a radical hymn… and a call for justice. This being the peace-themed week of Advent, it seems to me there is no peace without justice. Justice was a bit of a theme for Jesus… loving our brother, breaking chains, the end of oppression. Isn’t that the thing for which we wait? Isn’t that a theme for Advent? The theme? Dietrich Bonhoeffer (pictured above, in case you were wondering) said of Advent,

A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes… and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.

It begs the question of us… perhaps one that John Sullivan Dwight asked himself: This Advent, whose doors do we stand outside with the power to open? I think about Christmas efforts from the mid-80’s… (RSS readers may need to click through)

But what might we do?

What indeed?

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