Written by Brian Johnson
“O Holy Night” is a beautiful Christmas carol. But did you know that it’s also a song of revolution?
It was written in the 1840s, originally in French. It was translated into English in 1855, and, due to its third verse, quickly became popular among American abolitionists. They sung it on Christmas as a way of reminding themselves of the holy nature of their anti-slavery work. Those words are:
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!
Imagine if someone wrote a Christmas carol today and one of the verses was about welcoming refugees, or how Jesus is against White Supremacy. It would be true, but it might also be labeled as divisive, inappropriate, or overly political. And, yet, this hymn doesn’t shy away from the truth. It’s the truth that Mary taught us in worship on Sunday: that the Gospel of Jesus is political. It’s not political in the way we tend to think about politics – instead, it’s political in the sense of caring how Christians live our lives together and work to change the world. When God chose to be born among the poor, on the margins, to a people who were living under Roman oppression, it signaled that God is on the side of the weak and suffering. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that whatever we do to “the least of these [his] brothers and sisters,” we do to him. In other words, Jesus is in the business (and invites his people to be in the business) of lifting up the downtrodden, tearing down systems of injustice/violence/hatred, and breaking every chain that enslaves any of God’s beloved children.
The question we have to ask ourselves is: what chains does Jesus intend to break in our world right now? If God is against slavery (and God is against slavery!), what else in our world, right now, is God against? And what does God want us to do about it?
Christmas isn’t just about a cute baby in a manger surrounded by adorable animals. Christmas is an invitation to join Jesus as he cares for the broken, excluded, and oppressed. It is an invitation to remember that slaves – and all who suffer violence and injustice – are our siblings in the human family – and that we must therefore love those who suffer just as much as we love our own flesh and blood.
And it’s important to notice that this emphasis on doing justice happens within a song of worship. As the Old Testament prophets (and Mary, and John the Baptist, and Jesus, and Saint Paul, and more) frequently remind us, doing justice and caring for those who are suffering is an essential part of how we worship God. Loving others – especially the vulnerable – is just as much a part of how we give God glory as singing songs of praise.
May the God who was born into poverty and who lived a life of justice break every chain – and enable us to do the same.
Here’s a version of “O Holy Night” that I really enjoy. May it inspire you to praise God and work for justice.
If you miss any of our daily readings, you can find them archived here. (Readings will be added each day.) We hope these readings will help you encounter God this season!