Cantique de Noël

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.

What is wrong with that? What possible critique could be given to that? Well, let's delve into this a bit further and see what it brings forth. Do we ever really listen to what the words of a Christmas carol say, or do we just enjoy the warm feeling it gives? I cringe at some of these carols, though at times they may have truth in them, as they are not very Biblical or accurate but fanciful compositions. Sometimes a good excuse for exclusive Psalmody... thought I don't hold to that.

How often for Christmas have we heard and perhaps sung "O Holy Night" without listening but enjoying the tune. It is a beautiful piece no doubt, but as I sung it in a church where I am not a member but was visiting there were some things that stumped me. At first I thought the theology of this church, though it claimed to be a Reformed church, had gone stunningly liberal. Now to be fair this church has some liberal leanings and is struggling with some serious issues that may lead it to leave the denomination it is in.... but I will not go further on that since it is about the song that was sung.

O Holy Night was originally written by Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant, who lived from 1808-1877 as a poem called "Minuit, chrétiens" (Midnight, Christians) at the request of a priest. In 1847 it was composed as a Christmas carol by Adolphe Adam as "Cantique de Noël" (O Holy Night). A Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight adapted to music a rendition based on Cappeau's French text in 1855.

The French version if translated literally has a different reading to it then the version sung now. To read it in it's original French either Google it or go here on Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Holy_Night . A comparison of the literal English translation of the original French version with how it is now sung reveals some changes and even corrections. Literal isn't necessarily very readable or singable and so poetic licence is often taken. Both versions have some problems in them.

Comparing O Holy Night and Cantique de Noël;

O Holy Night (OHN)

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.

Cantique de Noël (CN)

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God-man descended to us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.

At this point the Cantique almost reads like a dirge of some sort, perhaps good with some moody somber music, while the Holy Night version is more uplifting. Problems arise with both though, in the OHN while we see the long anticipated saviour arriving we have to question what is meant by "the soul felt it's worth" Was it not John the Baptist who felt unworthy to untie the sandals of Christ? Perhaps the writer meant the hopelessness that a fallen nature inflicts on a person and there finally being a hope realised, yet it seems to deny the humility with which we approach God and perhaps the justified faith that Abraham and others walked with in looking forward to the promises. In the CN the emphasis is on original sin and the extinguishing of God's wrath, yet it distances sin from us as if we are innocent victims of it rather than willing partners in sin. Even God's wrath still exists against those who do not belong to Him and will not repent, rather it is the sacrifice that has been made that indicts them further on the hardness of their hearts.


A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.


The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior.

Perhaps on this not much is to be disagreed with in either version. We may say something about what "world" is defined as, yet we can say that it does speak for Romans 8:19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.


Fall on your knees! O hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.


People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

Here we see an interesting difference. The OHN seems to have what can best be called "night-olatry" where that particular night is venerated and honoured, Christ is but a side note in it, and we glorify the night He was born. In the CN for what purpose Christmas is used as a chant of sorts but the focus is upon Christ the Redeemer and our humble anticipation. The significance of such a focus on the Redeemer is not lost, because the presence of a redeemer must affirm there to be something from which we must be saved. Need we kneel down if we were saved from something outside of us or would we rather stand up and welcome deliverance? No, if we are being redeemed from out own sins then kneeling does place us at a humble footing.


Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.


May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.

We have to cedit the OHN for being more accurate in saying that they were wise men from an Orient land rather than referring to them as kings, the New Testament does not call them kings. What about the word "Faith"? Is this Faith given by the Holy Spirit or is Faith referring to particular theology? Each seems to be mentioning a different kind of faith, the CN makes Faith out to be something particular as a religion of sorts, while the OHN's Faith becomes a beacon that guides. A Reformed view of faith (notitia, assensus, and fiducia) might fit into these lines but doing so defines what is said in the sentences. This Faith must be Biblically rooted and not some ethereal spiritual view so common in the world. For it to fit we must believe that Christ's birth was foretold by the Prophets as being for our salvation, that He will rule over creation and finally bring a new Heavens and a new Earth about. We are not to stop at the cradle but move on to the cross and then to the tomb, ultimately leaving that behind and coming before the Throne. The image in our minds of that cradle is not enough and is not the summation of our faith.


The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!


The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

Here the CN takes the lead when it proclaims to us our inadequacy and need to repent, yes He was born in a humble place and maybe we can see in it Mark 10:43-45 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." With the OHN version we begin to wonder what is being said, we can apply interpretations to it that deform theology. What is meant by our needs and knowing our weaknesses? To see "needs" become our particular wants in life, and "weakness" become a rally cry for God will make you a better person would be wrong. If it be speaks of our fallen nature and our limits as humans, then we can agree, that God became man as in Philippians 2:5-8 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

So then was Christ born to be our friend in all our trials? Now by trials it means the things we endure in life, the infirmities and daily struggles with our sanctification, and not ongoing judgment and punishments. with John 9:39 Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind." He was born to die for our sins and one could hardly expect and enemy or aloof person to do this for us, so in that regard we could say so, yet maybe the aspects of the Holy Spirit as the Counselor would be fit better with that. We see friend being used in James 2:23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"--and he was called a friend of God. Here Abraham is a friend of God and we assume God is a friend of Abraham, yet making a God a "friend" is a precarious spot, for we are not to view God as a "buddy" and loose reverence of Him as God.


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.


The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.

There is a definite difference between the two versions and they are different gospels. The OHN has a social activism intertwined in it that is not seen in the CN version, Christ becomes a teacher of good living and the gospel is about peace. If this peace was from a forgiveness of sins that were propitiated, we might agree, but this peace is a worldly peace of getting along with others. This contrasts with what the CN version says, where the focus is on Christ's work and not ours, it is not about us but Him. What was contained in the original version has been changed and a new agenda placed in it that eventually makes Christ out of be a teacher and philosopher, someone that is more palatable to a secular world, and a distraction from God's purposes and plans.

The two lines "Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother" and "He sees a brother where there was only a slave" carry with them some implications. In the CN we may see ourselves as the slave and think of the bondage of sin we are under. In the OHN we have been separated from the slave personally and the slave becomes another person we can be joined to. The context of the lines following each of these sentences leave no doubt that the latter one referred to the general state of mankind lost in sin before God while the first involves itself in human events that are more contemporary. While it is good to desire a just society and be active in living out a life that demonstrates holiness the ultimate purpose of the Bible is not social or political change. Those sorts of things lead to Utopianism which are disguised socialism, and that sort of use of either Scripture or religion is manipulation for purposes other than furthering the real Gospel.


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.


Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

We see God exalted and praised in both of these, not much to complain about there, although maybe there should be some concern about the word Christmas being used. One problem with the CN version is that we see Christ die... He suffers and dies.... and then what? Are we delivered because of His death? It brings to mind 1Corinthians 15:14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. Why should we sing about Him dying if not living? The Gospel is sweet because He is alive. Rom 6:5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.