On Christmas Eve 1906, although details have become questionable concerning accuracy of the information, it’s reported that Reginald Fessenden delivered one of the first radio broadcasts. He aired a piece from George Frideric Handel followed by his own rendition on the violin of the beloved Christmas carol, "O Holy Night."
These days, you won’t listen to Christmas music on local radio stations very long without hearing someone’s version of that tune. Whether it’s Patti LaBelle or Sufjan Stevens, Mariah Carey or Martina McBride, dozens of famous crooners have belted out these famous notes and put their spin on the holiest of nights. Do you have a favorite artist rendition? More than 100 years later, that [arguably] first Christmas carol to be broadcast is still melting hearts and communicating the great gift of God’s great Son into the world.
The actual origin of the song is quite a bit more interesting. History has it that French wine merchant Placide Cappeau, a poet from Roquemaure, penned the complex text for a piece called, Minuit, Chrétiens, literally, “midnight Christians,” in 1843. Facing early criticism from the Catholic Church over a myriad of issues, much of the original language is an anthem calling people to rise up in the face of oppression. Very little of that sentiment made it into John Sullivan Dwight’s English translation barely a decade later in 1855.
Regardless of Cappeau’s lyrical intent, the popular version has certainly endured a long history of holiday fame. Do you have a favorite stanza or line? Perhaps you resonate with these lines from the first verse:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Or it might be that "O Holy Night" in your mind always includes the third verse and these 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.
Joy and Sorrow
Joy is one of those elations you simply can’t fully grasp until you've been in touch with sorrow. Just as morning bleeds brighter coming out of the night, mourning in a very real way paves the way for experiencing true peace. No one really knows how to recognize that which is good apart from the comparison to what is sufficiently not.
Of the countless famous figures throughout history and even popular celebrities today who share the date of their birth with that of our Savior, Clara Barton stands out. Born in 1821, she died at the age of 90 in the spring of 1912. Noted for her leadership and humanitarian work long before women had the right to vote, Barton was the teacher and nurse who founded and directed the American Red Cross from 1888 to 1904. A contemporary of both Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, Barton was known for civil rights activism and women’s suffrage in the years following the Civil War leading into the 20th century.
Remembered as a Universalist, Barton would likely not have reconciled a world that needed saving from sin as much as it did the ills of societal trauma caused by war, disasters, and diseases. The idea of an atoning sacrifice from a suffering substitutionary savior only sparks joy in those who recognize the alternative, eternity apart from the living God. Our thrill of hope is only as good as our weary soul is, in fact, weary.
Jesus explained this in an encounter recorded in chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel. When scoffed at by his Pharisaic host because of the extravagant outpouring of love and perfume from a societally sinful women, Jesus did what Jesus often did, enlightening him with a parable. The gist was that a person who is forgiven a little only loves a little. Whomever is forgiven much loves much.
Our Remedy for Weariness
Christmas joy can only be as joyful as our acknowledgement of our sin is deep and our understanding of salvation is precious. A weary world only rejoices when it knows how weary it is and sees in the distance a guaranteed remedy for its grief. After all, it’s in a book titled Lamentations (Latin for weeping or wailing) that we’re reminded of God’s steadfast love. It never ceases.
"Because of the LORD’s faithful love we do not perish, for his mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness!"
It’s when we’ve truly weeped and wailed that we can truly walk in the joy of the one who came to wipe every tear. Joy is never the absence of sorrow. It’s the recognition of a savior who came to sit with you in it and spare you the final weight of it.
Clara Barton’s final years were during the first decade of radio broadcasting popularity. It would be difficult to confirm whether she heard Fessenden’s rendition of "O Holy Night" or any other carol for that matter over the airwaves. Imagine, however, how remarkable that technology was on the outset and how special it would have been for turn of the century Americans.
Still recovering from the dastardly effects of a Civil War, we’d soon be enthralled in a worldwide one. As separate as we’d become, radio brought with it an opportunity to unify people. And no better tune than one inviting us to belt out loud sweet hymns of joy. May everything that is in us be full of joy, praising Christ’s holy name. Christmas joy comes when we know how good the gift of Jesus is. We know how undeniably great that gift really is when we know firsthand how very badly we need it.