Somewhere years ago I read a quotation attributed to Martin Luther which said that next to the Bible the best tool to get theology into the hearts of human beings is the hymnal. I agree with him. But of course, not all hymns/religious songs are theologically sound, so they must all be tested against the Word of God for their orthodoxy.
When they get it right, though, they are tremendous vehicles for bringing truth to light in ways that pierce the soul with eternity. Nowhere is this more true than in the Christmas season!
One of my favorite hymns for its theological magic is “O Holy Night.” As I sang it numerous times this last month, two particular couplets thrilled my heart with deepened meaning. The first is often quoted, for obvious reasons:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
The truth that God, out of unwarranted love, would enter this fallen world and take up residence among humans beings perfused with evil and depravity in order to rescue and adopt them as His children, should cause the heart to leap with joy. Such love for pre-fallen Adam and Eve, created in the pure image and likeness of God, would make sense — God would naturally love that which He has created and called good. But after the Fall, when the human race spirals downward into the willfulness of rebellion and moral corruption, how could anyone reasonably expect God to love a wayward and wasted humanity?
My limited experience in buying and selling things on the open market has taught me that any particular item is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay for it, no matter what price the seller sets. The actual purchase price determines its “value”.
The message of the Incarnation — as Athanasius put it, “that the Son of God became a man in order to enable men to become sons of God” (please enjoy the poetic balance and don’t get hung up on the exclusive wording) — tells us that God values even a lost and bedraggled human race worthy of hell; that He values us so much He was willing to come to earth “for us and for our salvation;” that we matter so much to Him that He was willing to spill His own blood so ours might be spared (in Acts 20:28 Paul urged the Ephesian elders to “feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood”)!
How amazing is that? In God’s eyes you and I and all human beings ever created or yet to come are worth the price of the blood of God incarnate! In the poetic theology of our hymn, when He appeared “the soul felt its worth!” No philosophy or religion can match the gospel message as to the value of every human life — if we matter to God, we matter — period!
And that leads me to the second couplet that so deeply impacted me this Christmas season:
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Actually, what caused my ears to perk up was hearing a version on the radio (perhaps I misheard it) which said, “Chains shall He break for the slave is His brother….” It’s powerful enough to be reminded that we all share a common humanity and thus should treat each other with equal dignity and respect, recognizing that Jesus offers salvation unreservedly to those in chains of slavery as well as to those who fancy themselves free. But how much more stunning is it to realize that the slave is not just our brother, but the brother of our Lord and Savior! How quickly we must embrace the brothers and sisters of Jesus who have suffered unjustly and been treated as less than fully human!
To see whether this rendering was faithful to the original hymn text, I did some research — and discovered that the English version we sing was based on an original text in French. The lines in question read:
Il voit un frère où n’était qu’un esclave, L’amour unit ceux qu’enchaînait le fer.
Translated literally into English, this is rendered: “He [Le Rédempteur = the Redeemer] sees a brother where there was only a slave; love unites those whom iron had enchained.” The poetry doesn’t translate well in literal English, but the meaning seems to enfold both ideas so well — the slave is our brother, and His brother.
The French text was originally composed in 1843 and first performed publicly in 1847, and finally translated into the English text we have today in 1855, less than 25 years after the British Parliament had passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, which finally and fully outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire. Without question, it was the tireless work of William Wilberforce, John Newton and other committed followers of Jesus Christ which held Parliament’s feet to the fire until they were forced to recognize the truth of the two-pronged biblical message that God created all human beings in His image and He came to sacrifice His life for all human beings. Slavery was an unconscionable affront to the glory and goodness of God, and had to be eradicated.
And so we sing, each Christmas season:
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn….
- Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name.
- Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
- His power and glory evermore proclaim.
- His power and glory evermore proclaim.