Though Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and Atheists aren’t going to be celebrating the birth of Christ, the music at this time of year is unavoidable. You can hardly pick up a gallon of milk at the store without hearing a Christmas song or run into a bell ringer wishing you a “Merry Christmas.” Christ is being proclaimed whether we agree with it or not. And even Jehovah’s Witnesses are out this winter building their presentations on the fact that others are celebrating Jesus’ birth. When I was in field service in the late 90’s, we would present the publication “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived” and talk about Jesus’ birth with the householder hoping to stay in conversation long enough to introduce the idea that He was now a King. A lesson I have no argument with today, however I give no credit to 1914 as the date for His return. Though their intent is to draw people into the Watchtower organization, Christ is still being preached (in a distorted way). And it causes me to reflect upon others who have brought the message of Christ to many ears even when they themselves are not Christian.
Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (Phil 1:15-18 NASB)
An Atheist, a Jew, and Unitarian walk into a song….
Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure (1808–1877) was a wine seller by trade but commissioned by a local parish priest to write a Christmas poem in 1843. Though Cappeau rarely attended Mass himself, he obliged and wrote “Cantique de Noël” using the story of Jesus’ birth from the gospel of Luke to guide his lyrics. Cappeau then approached his friend Adolphe Charles Adams (1803-1856) to compose music for his new poem. As a man of Jewish ancestry, Adams did not celebrate the birth of Christ himself but set his friend’s poem to music and it was later performed at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1847.
Christmas services in France were blessed by this carol for several years until “Cantique de Noël” was considered unfit for church services due to it’s “total absence of the spirit of religion” according to the French Catholic Church. Based on allegations that it’s composer was Jewish and it’s lyricist was an atheist, the Catholic Church banned the Christmas song. The French people, however, continued to sing it in their homes and in 1855 a Unitarian minister in America, John Sullivan Dwight (1812-1893), discovered it and identified with these words, “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.” Dwight was an abolitionist concerned about slavery and introduced an English translation of “O Holy Night” for his magazine which was well received in the North during the Civil War. From there “Cantique de Noël” spread throughout America.
“O Holy Night” remains one of the most popular and stirring Christmas carols and churches throughout the world will be filled with believers on Christmas Eve declaring it’s verses in praise of the night recognized as Our Dear Savior’s birth. Of course Jehovah’s Witnesses will not be singing this song during the month of December, but if the lyricist and composer were alive today, it’s likely they would not be among the congregated throngs either for neither of them carried the title of “Christian” or attended Christmas Eve services. I find it curious that an atheist, a Jew, and a Unitarian are responsible for giving the church this song. Cappeau was commissioned to write a poem, his Jewish friend Adams composed the tune, then a Unitarian abolitionist translated it to express his concern for social justice. I honestly don’t believe any of them had an intent to convert someone to Christ, yet somehow they were each involved in lifting up Jesus. In John’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying “if I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to Myself.” (John 12:32). And through the gifts of these men, Jesus is being lifted up in song. Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Keep yourself in God’s love,