In France, in the mid 1800’s, a parish priest asked a wine and spirits seller — who was an avowed atheist — to write a Christmas poem to celebrate the renovation of the church organ. The atheist studied Luke’s gospel and went on to write the beautiful, lofty, praise-filled lyrics to this song we’ve come to know as “O Holy Night”. Such is the power of the good news of Jesus Christ that even an atheist could — by reading it — offer such an inspiring report. Please give it a sing-along listen, then we’ll look at the rest of the story.
The touch of the master’s hand
‘Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But held it up with a smile.
“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried,
“Who’ll start the bidding for me?”
“A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?
Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?”
“Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;
Going for three…” But no,
From the room, far back, a grey-haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin,
And tightening the loosened strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet,
As a caroling angel sings.
The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: “What am I bid for the old violin?”
And he held it up with the bow.
“A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?
Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?
Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice,
And going and gone,” said he.
The people cheered, but some of them cried,
“We do not quite understand.
What changed its worth?” Swift came the reply:
“The touch of the Master’s hand.”
And many a man with life out of tune,
And battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd
Much like the old violin.
A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine,
A game — and he travels on.
He is “going” once, and “going” twice,
He’s “going” and almost “gone.”
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
By the touch of the Master’s hand.
Myra Brooks Welch
The story of how this song came to be is both strange and wonderful. It made me think of that beautiful poem “The Touch of the Master’s Hand”. Let’s see if you agree.
Wikipedia tells the story this way: “O Holy Night” (original title: Cantique de Noël) is a well-known Christmas carol. Originally based on a French-language poem by poet Placide Cappeau, written in 1843, with the first line “Minuit, Chrétien, c’est l’heure solennelle” (Midnight, Christian, is the solemn hour) that composer Adolphe Adam set to music in 1847. The English version (with small changes to the initial melody) is by John Sullivan Dwight. The carol reflects on the birth of Jesus as humanity’s redemption.
(See article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Holy_Night)
Hymnary.org adds these remarkable details:
Placide Cappeau was born in France in 1808, the son of a cooper. He may have followed in his father’s business, but when eight years old, a playmate accidentally shot him in the hand with a gun he was playing with, and the hand had to be amputated. He followed an academic career instead. The shooter’s father paid for half his education, and he was able to attend town school and the College Royal d’Avignon. Despite his handicap, he was awarded a first prize in drawing there. He studied literature in Nimes, and law in Paris, and was licensed to practice law in 1831. Instead, he became a merchant of wines and spirits, but his focus was really on literature. A parish priest, Father Petitjean, in Cappeau’s community, asked him to write a Christmas poem to celebrate the renovation of their organ, and he agreed to do it, despite being an avowed atheist and vocal anti-cleric. He researched the book of Luke and wrote the lyrics to “O Holy night”. An opera singer, Emily Laurie, saw the text and asked a Jewish friend of hers to compose music for it, which he, remarkably, did. She sang it at a midnight mass three weeks later, and parishioners raved. But when Catholic church leaders found out it was written by an atheist, they banned it. However, its popularity only grew.
A side story: In 1906 Reginald Fessenden, a 33 year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, did something thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, he spoke into a microphone and for the first time in history a voice was broadcast over the airwaves. And he read, from the book of Luke, “And it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” He began, in a clear strong voice. Shocked radio operators on ships and wireless owners at newspapers, used to Morse code heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a speaking voice reading Luke and had no idea where it came from. When the professor finished his reading, he picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night”.. the first song ever played over the air waves in the whole world. Imagine the surprise of listeners everywhere, never suspecting such a thing was possible.
(See article at https://hymnary.org/person/Cappeau_P)
“But God” have been called “the two greatest words in the Bible”. How many times has it happened that some ordinary thing — or some “ordinary” person is touched by the Master’s hand, and something beautiful, maybe even miraculous results?
“O Holy Night” began with a parish priest asking an atheist to write a Christmas poem. An opera singer somehow got the Christmas poem, loved it and asked a Jewish friend to write a melody for it. She sang this new work at mass three weeks later. People loved it, but when some Catholic church leaders learned an atheist wrote it, they banned it. But worshipers wouldn’t give the song up, and it lived on. Later, John S. Dwight, a music virtuoso, literary scholar and writer translated the Christmas song to English.
It seems that this was the first music ever broadcast over the airwaves in the whole world.
Would you agree this song has a remarkable history? What a surprising cast of players and chain of events that moved this song along.
More than one hundred seventy years later we still put this song to work, raising our voices and hearts to the Lord in praise, thanksgiving and awe as we celebrate the change wrought in a person by the touch of the Master’s hand and as we contemplate the humble beginning of the Savior — the agent of all that change — who was born on that holy night.
God bless you lots!
LYRICS: O Holy Night
French lyrics: Placide Cappeau (1808-1877)
Translated: John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: Adolphe-Charles Adam (1803-1856)
O holy night! the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’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 world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
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 came the Magi from eastern land.
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!
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.
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 pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
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