God often uses improbable people, in obscure places, to accomplish his purpose. Scripture is full of examples; and each of us can probably site contemporary proof.
The story of the familiar carol, “O Holy Night,” certainly confirms the premise.
In 1847, a parish priest of Roquemaure, France asked Placide Cappeau, a winemaker, to compose a poem for the Christmas mass. Placide was not a published author; he only wrote poetry as a hobby.
So did the priest choose Placide because he was a devout follower of Jesus and faithful in his support of the church? No, in actuality, he rarely attended mass. Did God choose Placide, and prompt the priest to ask him the favor? Perhaps.
What we do know is, Placide said, “Yes.” Not long after, while en route to Paris by coach, he began the creative process by imagining himself at the birth of Jesus. His spirit became inspired, and before Placide arrived at his destination, “O Holy Night” was finished.
What this poem needs is music, Placide thought, and asked his friend, Adolphe Adams, to provide a melody.
(Adolphe Charles Adams)
Adolphe was a gifted musician, having studied at the Paris conservatoire. Before age thirty, he had produced two operas and several ballets. He received commissions from around the world to write symphonies and ballets for orchestras and ballet companies.
Adolphe could have said, “No.” After all, he was a busy man, and what would he gain by writing a tune for a Christmas Eve service?
Perhaps he was motivated by fondness for his friend. Or did he find the lyrics strangely compelling?
You see, Adolphe was not a church-goer either. In fact, he was of Jewish ancestry. He had no interest in Christmas! So did God work in his heart, giving him the desire to create music for this carol, then inspiring the moving melody? Perhaps.
Just three weeks later, “Cantique de Noel” was performed for Christmas mass.
You might expect a “happily-ever-after” ending at this point. Something like: “Quickly the song spread from church to church, and within several years, the song had become a favorite carol across Europe, and even in America.”
“Cantique de Noel” did become a beloved carol very quickly, but church leaders banned the song from services. Placide had joined the socialist movement, and it became known that the composer was Jewish.
The French people, however, continued to sing it.
Ten years later in America, a former-minister-become-publisher, John Sullivan Dwight, “happened” across the French carol. Like so many before him, he fell in love with the song. John translated it into English and published “O Holy Night” in his Journal of Music.
(John Sullivan Dwight)
The third verse particularly impressed him:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the save is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.
The confrontation between North and South was already brewing, being heavily debated throughout America. John was an abolitionist, and found those words (which he translated faithfully from the original French) to be incredibly meaningful.
Many Americans joined John in his enthusiasm for the carol, especially in the North.
Had God brought the carol to John’s attention, just when Americans needed a reminder of God’s love for all men and His Gospel of peace? Perhaps.
The history of this carol does not end there.
According to legend, “O Holy Night” brought about a Christmas miracle in 1871. France and Germany were at war. Even on Christmas Eve, the battle raged. Suddenly a French soldier jumped out of a trench, stood boldly without his weapon, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” Gunfire ceased. Except for the man’s singular voice, all was quiet. He sang all three verses.
Suddenly a German infantryman climbed out of his trench to sing a carol written by Martin Luther: “From Heaven above to Earth I Come.”
For twenty-four hours the fighting stopped, in honor of Christmas.
Thirty-five years later, in 1906, “O Holy Night” was part of another historical event. Reginald Fessenden, a professor and former chemist for Thomas Edison, broadcast his voice over airwaves on Christmas Eve. First he read from Luke, chapter 2.
Can you imagine the shock of radio operators, used to hearing the long and short pulses of Morse code, suddenly hearing a voice?
And my guess is, there were a few tears as the Christmas story ended and Reginald took up his violin to play “O Holy Night”– the first song ever heard on radio.
What prompted Reginald to choose that particular carol? Did he wish to remind the world that:
“It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
…He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
(Sources: Stories Behind the Best-Loved songs of Christmas by Ace Collins, Zondervan, 2001, Stories of the Great Christmas Carols by Kenon D. Renfrow and June C. Montgomery, Alfred Publishing Co., 2003, and the website for the Museum of Radio and Technology, Inc, at http://www.ohio.edu/people/postr/mrt/Cmas1906, htm.)
Art & photo credits: www.hdwallpapersinn.com, www25.uua.org, http://www.wikipedia.org; http://www.stormfront.org.
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