“O Holy Night” is one of my favorite Christmas songs. Did you know it was translated into English (from French) in Massachusetts, likely in West Roxbury? The translation was done in 1855 by John Sullivan Dwight who was a unitarian minister and the former director of the school at the 19th-century Brook Farm commune. Did you know that the third verse is highly controversial? Here are the original English lyrics:
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
Dwight was an abolitionist and wrote these words with great intention. Not surprisingly, they were not embraced by those who supported slavery. The American Civil War took place from April 1861 – May 26, 1865. One can only imagine how those lyrics played a role of changing hearts and minds and perhaps embittering a few others.
To this day, many artists choose to record alternative lyrics such as Carrie Underwood’s version which reads, “Chains shall He break for His child is our brother.” If you ask me, this is a missed opportunity to proclaim the WHOLE gospel: both personal salvation and the salvation of the world – including ending racism, poverty, and every other kind of brokenness.
Good news – Josh Groban gets it right (with the original lyrics). Bad news – Whitney Houston and Celine Dion skip the third verse altogether. (face-palm)
Whichever artist you hear singing the song, take a minute to remember that Jesus was born not just for your personal sins, but also for these systemic sins that oppress and imprison.
Howard Thurman, mentor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said this about the work of Christmas: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the world of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.” -Howard Thurman (civil rights leader of 20th century), “The Work of Christmas” (1986).
Merry Christmas Church!
Pastors Karen and Nick
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