Do You Hear What I Hear? O Holy Night


When Heather and I got married we had to figure out how to merge our family traditions into our own.  We had to figure out when the tree goes up and when it must come down.  When do the presents go under the tree?  As they get wrapped or on Christmas eve?   One of the traditions of her family was listening to Nat King Cole’s famous Christmas album.  Today we’ve added a number of CDs to our collection and we have a blast doing karaoke while putting up the tree.  But I can’t help but stop and reflect everytime Nat King Cole’s version of “O Holy Night,” comes on in the rotation.

The carol, O Holy Night, was written in the mid 1800's. There was a parish priest asked a guy in town to write a poem based on Luke 2.  The man he asked was a French merchant and a poet named Placide Cappeau. Now Placide was known more as the life of the party than by a life changed by Jesus Christ.  Church was not on his to do list but he was known as a good poet. So, Placide wrote the poem as requested but then he did one better.  He asked a friend who was a good song writer to put the poem to music.  Of course, this friend wasn’t a Christian and in fact, his family was Jewish by heritage.  The song became so popular within a couple of years everyone in the Catholic Church was singing it!  Word did get out though about the character of the two guys who did the work and so a push was made to remove the song but it didn’t do much good as so many people loved it.

Legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench. Both sides, French and German, stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and sang the first line of “O Holy Night.”  The story goes that an unofficial cease fire occurred for the next 24 hours as the soldiers celebrated Christmas together.

Later in 1906, Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year old professor and assistant to Thomas Edison, did what many people thought was impossible. He used a generator, plugged a microphone into it and broadcast the very first AM broadcast in the history of the world on Christmas Eve in 1906. He read from Luke, Chapter 2, and broadcast the Christmas story.  Sailors on ships and writers at newspapers were shocked to hear a voice over their radios that before that day only broadcast coded impulses. Next he took his violin and played into the microphone the first song broadcast across airwaves in the history of the world.  The song was “O Holy Night.” (See Beliefnet's History of O Holy Night)

Honestly, why should this really surprise us?  As I spent time both with the scripture and the song, it seems to make perfect sense.  Read the words carefully and it seems that the song comes from the perspective of the shepherds.  Shepherds, a group of people whose profession made them unclean by the temple standards and unable to testify in court.  Shepherds were a people who the Pharisees and Priests couldn’t get by without because they needed the sheep for making sacrifices!  And who again wrote the poem?  Who wrote the song?  Why, an outcast and a sinner.

And so who is it the angel is sent to tell the “Good News?”  It is shepherds, in other words, the dregs and outcast.  And who is it Jesus, as a grown man, would be accused of hanging out with again and again?  What kind of people would attach themselves to Jesus, and follow every word and every step?  Tax collectors and prostitutes…sinners. 

But as I sat reflecting on the scripture and song, I felt I was still missing something.  How is it these two collaborators had created such an inspiring and well loved song?  And then it hit me in the first lines of each verse, the words of the apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 13…faith, hope and love.  Could it be that these three that remain are a longing for all of humanity?  Could it be they expressed the desires of all our hearts and proclaimed a message that resonates in us all?

1. Hope for the weary world.  Have you ever just stopped and listened to your soul?  Usually it is on a mountain top or that morning cup of coffee looking over the beach.  Something speaks to our core – that is our soul.  Our souls have worth and we are not left to wander aimlessly in this life. 

2. Faith leads us to Good News, the reality that God has come to be with us (Immanuel).  This is what led the wise men to search.  All they had was a star in the sky!  They had no Tom-Tom, Google maps or Siri to talk with about where to go.

3.  Love becomes the new law by which we live.  Love is how Jesus lived and what he taught.  Not just any love but a love that breaks our handcuffs that have us locked to sin and frees us to live a new life!


The hope to begin anew is here.  The faith you have been seeking is here.  The love you have longed for is here.  If this is good news to shepherds it is good news for you.  If it is good news for tax collectors, it is good news for you.  If it is good news for prostitutes then it is good news for you.  If it is good news for sinners it is good news for you.  Faith, hope and love remain, wrote the Apostle Paul, but the greatest of these is love and love is here – in Jesus!




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