Sermon for Christmas Eve

December 24, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

O Holy Night the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.

         This story of God with us through Christ is the most fantastic story ever told. It requires a suspension of disbelief in order to even consider the possibility. We’re in all the way when science fiction writers project the latest rendition of Star War on the big screen. We line up for hours to see the next iteration of Hans Solo and Chewbacca traveling at light speed to places we’d like to imagine exist.

         Many critics of Christianity think that the story of Christmas is just such a fable, a fascinating tale that sells American goods and services and lightens the hearts of people around the world, if only for a moment.

         There are plenty of cynics out there tonight who believe Christians are in denial about the state of the world, with our magical thinking about a virgin named Mary and stars in the sky. Imagine for a moment that you are being interviewed by just such a cynical talk show host, who wants to challenge the thinking of an ordinary churchgoer on Christmas Eve.

         When accused of magical thinking on such a night as this, imagine responding in this way.

“Have you ever been to the theater to see a play?” we might ask our critic,  “Of course, I have.  So what?” “Was there a set on the stage with, say, a window, and maybe ambient noise of something like traffic going by that staged window?”

“Something like that before, yes. But what’s your point?”  “My point is did you rise from your seat, protesting, and go to the ticket booth demanding a refund, because that window on the stage and the ambient noise weren’t literally real?”  Now he sees where I’m going. We can let an analyses of facts trample the telling of any great story. And in the final analysis, Christmas is not just a story about a middle-eastern family two thousand years ago, but much more so a living relationship with the God who is with us still. No other story ever told continues to have the transformative power to change our way of seeing and being in the world, generation after generation for all of time, than this.

Music captures God’s greatest story at this season more so than any other. The reason is clear. When we humans have explored all there is to know through our intellect, we bump up against the edges of mystery that cannot be explained, but only perceived through metaphor and music beyond words. The story of Christmas is best received not through the details of the daily newspaper or through fact checking on Wikipedia, but through the imagination of our hearts.

Imagine then for a moment, the scene before us in Bethlehem. This sanctuary becomes the stable where we have come to behold this great news that illumined the sky and pointed us here. We enter quietly, awestruck and silent. Though we cannot explain why, we fall on our knees in humility and vulnerability before the mystery.

Life has been difficult. We’ve been through a lot this year. The world has been shaken. We’ve come to Church on Christmas because we long for that new and glorious morn promised through the story of God with us through Christ, and portrayed through beloved Christmas carols like O Holy Night:

“O! Holy night! The stars, their gleams prolonging,

Watch o'er the eve of our dear Savior's birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error, longing

For His appearance, then the Spirit felt its worth.

A thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Our story this Christmas is deeply connected to people’s everywhere whose suffering this year has been great. As our hearts empathized with the people of France after the violence they experienced earlier this fall. We remember them and the faith of people everywhere as we return now to Paris. Through the telling of one of their Christmas stories, God’s good news once again becomes our own.

The strange and fascinating story of "O Holy Night" began in France, yet eventually made its way around the world. In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissionaire of wines in a small French town. Known more for his poetry than his church attendance, it probably shocked Placide when his parish priest asked the commissionaire to pen a poem for Christmas mass. Nevertheless, the poet was honored to share his talents with the church.

In a dusty coach traveling down a bumpy road to France's capital city, Placide Cappeau considered the priest's request. Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Thoughts of being present on the blessed night inspired him. By the time he arrived in Paris, "Cantique de Noel" had been completed.

Moved by his own work, Cappeau decided that his "Cantique de Noel" needed a master musician's hand. Not musically inclined himself, the poet turned to one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams, for help.

The son of a well-known classical musician, Adolphe had studied in the Paris conservatoire. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics that his friend gave him must have challenged the composer.  

As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words of "Cantique de Noel" represented a day he didn't celebrate and a man he did not view as the Son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, marrying an original score to Cappeau's beautiful words. His finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Initially, "Cantique de Noel" was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song--which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France--was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church. Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.

In 1855, an American writer and minister, John Sullivan Dwight, felt that this wonderful Christmas song needed to be introduced to America. He saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: "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 text supported Dwight's own view of slavery in the South.

This incredible work--requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by a poet who would later split from the church, given soaring music by a Jewish composer, and brought to Americans to serve as much as a tool to spotlight the sinful nature of slavery as tell the story of the birth of a Savior--has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music ever created.

Regardless of the race, nationality, or religion of those who hear this story of Christmas, no matter how we tell it, we begin to see its power to move us and to change us. In every generation, the story of God with us is re-told in fresh ways for those eager to experience God’s good news. The Divine power, Creator God of all that was or is or ever will be, continually births new stars into being, and intricately knits human cells together in our mother’s wombs. We worship this God close to us as breathing and distant as the farthest stars.

This Christmas story continued long after song writer Adams had been dead for many years and Cappeau and Dwight were old men. On Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden--a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison--did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man's voice was broadcast over the airwaves: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed," he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would.

Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as a professor reading from the gospel of Luke interrupted their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle--hearing a voice somehow transmitted as if by an angel to those far away.

“Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn't have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played "O Holy Night," the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast--but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.”

Tonight we gather at the stable here in York, Maine, cell phones in our pockets. We tweet the good news of God with us, text our family and friends on Christmas morning, and post our favorite hymns on Facebook. We join an endless lineage of travelers to Bethlehem who read the gospel of Luke and sing” O Holy Night” and hymns like it in churches like this in every corner of the world.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining, 

It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth; 

Long lay the world in sin and error pining, 

'Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth. 

A thrill of hope the weary worldrejoices, 

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn;



Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices! 

O night divine! O night when Christ was born. 

O night, O holy night, O night divine.

Portions of this sermon are quoted from "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" with permission of Zondervan.

Initial illustration inspired by the work of United Church of Christ Pastor Dale Rosenberger, 2015.