The Whole Gospel in the Songs of Christmas (Part 3)

As we bring this short series on the Whole Gospel in the Songs of Christmas (see part 1 and part 2) to an end, the following are a few more carols and songs with often overlooked verses or Gospel imagery. In the first example, O Holy Night, the difference I want to highlight is between the original French version and its literal meaning. Cantique de Noël was written in 1847 by Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant in Roquemaure in southern France. Following is a literal translation of the original poem. Note the attention to original sin, appeasing the wrath of God, the humility of bowing, and the progression of the birth, suffering, and death of the Savior in order to break the bonds of sin.

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior.
People, kneel down, await your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!
May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

Notice the difference in the emphasis between the literal translation of verse three above, and the and the well-known translation by John Sullivan Dwight:

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.

What was intended as praise for the redemptive work of Christ in breaking bonds and turning slaves into brothers becomes Dwight’s Unitarian call for the brotherhood of all mankind in a universal call for love and peace devoid of the physicality of the birth, suffering, and death of Christ. Sadly, however, many recorded versions don’t even get to the third verse even in its truncated vision of joy. I appreciate the progression of postures in the successive verses—from kneeling and waiting, bowing before the Redeemer (the opposite of a “stiff-necked” people), and then standing and singing of deliverance.

The Sussex Carol (On Christmas Night), firmly places the joy of the birth of Christ in His work as Redeemer. The second and third verses make that very clear:

Then why should men on earth be sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad
When from our sin he set us free
All for to gain our liberty?
When sin departs before his grace,
Then life and health come in its place;
Angels and men with joy may sing,
All for to see the new-born King.

The final carol for this Christmas season comes from Isaac Watt’s setting of Psalm 98, Joy to the World. Ironically, it’s the Christological redemptive third verse that most often gets left out of hymnals:

No more let Sins and Sorrows grow,
Nor Thorns infest the Ground:
He comes to make his Blessings flow
Far as the Curse is found.

The pushing back of the effects of the Fall is the reason for Christmas—the coming of the Redeemer King who “knows our weakness” and who bears the weight of sin and death to bring peace through the blood of His cross. From the child in the manger, to the savior on the cross, to the conqueror of death, to the ascended Lord at the right hand of the Father, the theme of Christmas is the story of our redemption from the love of the Father. This gives us cause to sing and a reason to be merry.

Greg Wilbur