Lighting a Candle for a Holy Night
This afternoon (Saturday, the 17th), at 4:30 pm, I will be lighting a candle. I am lighting this candle as a prayer for mercy, protection, and peace, because these are the words that have formed as I have prayed for the people of Aleppo over the last several days. Over the last few days these words have come to me as I have prayed and as I have gone about my day. The words have come to me out of silence and even in the midst of my busyness.
These are the gifts that I pray to descend upon the people of Aleppo, the survivors from this Syrian civil war that have been caught in the destruction of this one time beautiful and ancient city, especially over the last several days as the city has fallen to destructive forces. These are the gifts that I pray to descend especially upon the children, who must be frightened beyond anything that I can comprehend and must grow up with this memory embedded in their spirits. And these are the gifts that I pray descend upon the rest of the world—gifts that we are not to keep, but to offer this world and especially to anyone who is in danger and in need of mercy, protection, and peace.
And so at 4:30 pm today I will light a candle to represent my prayers for mercy, protection and peace. I will do this because I cannot get to the candlelight vigil that will take place in our capital of Charleston, WV. It is a vigil that has been planned quickly out of the need to pray for this situation and to understand this humanitarian need. I am glad that it is taking place, bringing people from all over to pray and to lift the light of hope and peace in this dark world. I am sad that I will not be able to get there in time to be a part, so I will light my own candle that will burn brightly in the growing darkness and will represent my prayers for mercy, protection, and peace.
During this time of vigil I will listen to the beloved Christmas hymn “O Holy Night.” I have been thinking about this hymn this past week because there have been several times when the lyrics have been present with me. One line in particular keeps coming back to me over and over: Long lay the world in sin and error pinning, til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” I don’t know how many times I have heard this line over the years of my life; I don’t know how many times I have sung this line over the years of my life, but this year I keep coming back to this line over and over again, with a question: What does it mean for the soul to feel it’s worth?
The history of “O Holy Night,” itself, is for me, in part, an answer to my question. In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, known for his poetry, was asked by the parish priest if he would write a poem for Christmas Eve mass. Using the Gospel of Luke, the poet wrote about the thoughts that might have occurred to him if he had been present at the birth of Jesus. Cappeau was pleased with his work and later decided that it needed to be set to music. So he asked his friend Adolphe Charles Adams to compose the music that we now know. It is interesting to note that Cappeau did not attend church regularly and Adams, was Jewish, yet the beauty of the words and the beauty of the music have been powerful gift to this world and have inspired works and actions of beauty and peace.
There have been several translations of this hymn throughout the years, but the translation that we know best is one by John Sullivan Dwight. Dwight was an abolitionist and the words of the third verse spoke to him: “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. After Dwight’s translation was published, many people found those words inspiring as well.
There is a legend connected with this hymn that comes from 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War. It is said that on Christmas Eve a French soldier suddenly jumped out of this trench and with both sides thinking he was crazy, began to sing “O Holy Night.” After completing the song, a German infantryman jumped up and responded by singing the beginning of Martin Luther’s hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” and a 24 hour truce was observed that Christmas. That truce speaks volumes of the power of words and music.
The first music broadcast on AM radio occurred on Christmas Eve in 1906 by Reginald Fessenden, a university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison. Not many people heard him, mainly radio operators on ships at sea, but those who did heard him read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke and then he picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night.” He also sang the third verse, that same verse that inspired John Sullivan Dwight decades before.
The song has a powerful story, one that causes us to really ponder what the birth of Christ has meant for this world and for our lives and one that has inspired actions of soul worth. As I have thought about this song this week and in particular the line that catches in my heart I have thought a lot about what caused Cappeau to write the words “. . .til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
The Old Testament prophets wrote to a world that was caught in sin and error, injustice and greed and they hinted that a Messiah would help humanity to overcome these conditions by saving the people and helping the people to understand the power of love. Indeed, prior to birth of Jesus there was much sin and error, injustice and greed. And there still is.
Can it be that humanity has never understood our worth? Can it be that humanity is still trying to understand fully what Emmanuel—God With Us—means? Can it be that we have not completely understood just how much each life matters to God? Can it be that somehow we don’t believe that we are worth saving?
If we can ever fully realize just how much each soul, each person means to God, then I think that we will begin to see each other as God sees us—beloved children and wonderful to behold. If we can ever fully realize just how much each soul, each person means to God, then I think that it will be easier for us to love all people and treat all people as beloved children of God.
So, this afternoon, I will light a candle for mercy, protection, and peace and pray for the time when all of humanity will feel its worth.
To God alone be glory.