Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The subversive nature of 'O Holy Night"

"O Holy Night" is under most circumstances a great showboat of a Christmas carol, favored by tenors and sopranos with range and volume --- a show-stopper when accompanied by orchestra, chorus and evocative lighting; a disaster waiting to happen when undertaken by a vocalist who hasn't the talent to pull it off.

My favorite version this year is performed by Sammy Ramsey --- a young man with considerable talent about whom I know absolutely nothing. It's free for the taking, and so I did. Listen!

The original version is French, "Cantique de Noel" --- "Hymn of Christmas"; set to music by Adolphe Adam in 1847, based upon a poem written in 1843 by poet and wine merchant Placide Cappeau. The poem reportedly was commissioned by the parish priest in Roquemaure, a small town in southern France, to celebrate renovation of the church organ.

The first twist here is the fact Cappeau was an atheist and something of a socialist --- an unlikely candidate to compose devotional anthems. "Cantique de Noel" was considered revolutionary in its time, described by Adam as "la Marseillaise religieuse." 

The full flavor of the carol's revolutionary nature is expressed in the third stanza that distills the the message of the Chirst child into a few words that even the most skeptical among us can affirm:

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.

John Sullivan Dwight, a Boston-based Unitarian minister and transcendentalist, translated the carol into English and introduced a singable version to America in 1855, a time when the elephant in the room was slavery. The revolutionary message of its words did not pass unnoticed.

The old carol's revolutionary message is as relevant now as then.

Christians have been praying for peace for centuries; no doubt will do so again this Christmastide --- celebrating in candle-lighted chancels a "prince of peace" when, in fact, there is no peace and all of our petitions have proved ineffectual.

Primarily, I suppose, because it's easier to pray for peace than it is to undertake the tasks necessary to become an answered prayer --- a peace-maker.

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