My wife knows I'm sort of a curmudgeon when it comes to Christmas music. Guilty as charged. If it were up to me, the canon would be limited to about a dozen classics. I'm a pretty open minded guy, but not when it comes to Christmas music.
It's probably no surprise, then, that my favorite Christmas song is "O Holy Night." To me, this song is among the best expressions of faith and the profound optimism that underlies Christianity. Part of why I think it works so well is that it merges three things essential to Christian tradition. Consider these lines:
"Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn."
First, there's an acknowledgment of what a mess we all are. But then, with that understood, there's the assertion that we matter in a profound and real way—at the level of our souls. And third, there's that bit about hope and a brighter future.
The second verse goes on to convey the essential paradox of the lowly king, the God-child—the unlikely embodiment of the divine in the most fragile and humble form of a vulnerable infant. And not just any infant. One who wasn't above using a livestock feeding trough for a crib. ("Manger" derives from the Latin verb "to devour." What a notion, considering what was in store for that child.) Unpack that for a little while, and we discover that so much about Christianity is right there in that image:
"The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trial born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness no stranger…"
And, of course, there's some encouragement toward the end of the song, and a reminder of the message of hope that permeates the world's largest faith tradition:
"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."
It's notable that the lines about breaking chains and ending oppression are written in the future tense—which suggests there's still work to be done, and we have the potential for a better world still before us.
Lyric analysis aside, part of why this song is so important to me is that becoming a father has been, for me, the clearest and most unambiguous affirmation of my worth and purpose before God. Holding a new life, so full of possibility, is a profound and humbling celebration of hope.
Here's Nat King Cole's 1960 album version.