O Holy Night is one of the most famous Christmas songs, and one of the most beloved, suitable for both choirs and operatic solos. What is less well known is that it was originally written as a poem in French by Placide Cappeau at the request of a priest. Not long after it was written, Adolphe Adam composed the soaring, moving music that has made it such a soul-stirring peace. Today I would like us to consider the literal translation of two portions of the lyrics that our English version does not bring out as much.

Où l’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous

Pour effacer la tache originelle

Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.

When the God-man descended right down to us

To erase the original stain

And to halt the wrath of His Father.

Christ is God: the Scripture tell us so and the Spirit testifies to this truth. The author here, consciously or unconsciously, echoes St Paul’s famous hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 and John 1. That the Creator of all things should take on the flesh of lowly creatures – not even the spiritual flesh of the gods – shows true humility. He did it to rescue us from our sin and from the wrath of God. An unpopular doctrine, the Scripture nevertheless states boldly that God’s sin rests on the unbelievers. No less than Christ Himself said so.

…and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

-John 3:36

Advent and Christmas are times when we think of the frail Christ in His manger, His glory veiled, and those given a glimpse mere nobodies in the world’s eyes. He came with a mission: to reconcile us to God. This mission was important: it matters to God and it matters to us. The preaching of the Gospel must never present this as a trivial affair. A mission that required the Incarnation and suffering and death of the Son of God is important – far more important than transient political, economic, and social realities. At this time of year, we must put that back into its proper perspective. Let the world howl in madness – we must turn to that eternal Light.

Qui lui dira notre reconnaissance,
C’est pour nous tous qu’il naît, qu’il souffre et meurt.

Peuple debout! Chante ta délivrance,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur!

Who will tell Him of our gratitude?

It is for us all that He is born, that He suffers and dies.

On your feet, people! Sing of your rescue!

Christmas, Christmas, let us sing of the Redeemer!

Christmas, Christmas, let us sing of the Redeemer!

These words do not shy away from the suffering of Christ. Even in the manger, He is Christ crucified, which makes this a Gospel-centric hymn. The final words call us to celebrate in joy the work of Christ on our behalf. They call us to proclaim from our hearts our gratitude to God, and in so doing acknowledge that He is victorious, that He succeeded in His noble work.