In 2014, Sovereign Grace Music released our second Christmas album, Prepare Him Room. It included a revised version of O Holy Night, with new lyrics written by my friend, Kevin Hartnett. I wrote a post that explained the background of the song and why Kevin rewrote two of the verses.
The fundamental reason Kevin gave was that Timothy Dwight’s translation from the French didn’t capture the good news of the gospel in the way that the original lyrics did. Here’s a literal translation of how the song began:
Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
We Need More Than Beautiful Music
Search for O Holy Night on YouTube and you’ll get a plethora of versions, many of them amazing, some not so much. But there’s no question that the melody written by a Jewish man in the mid-19th century stirs something in our hearts that touches us deeply. We taste a passion and profundity we rarely encounter in our mundane lives. We almost “feel holy” listening to it.
But holiness isn’t a feeling. It’s not an atmosphere or an attitude of moral superiority. “Holy” is what God is – unique in his essence, perfect in his character. In his excellent book Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, Sinclair Ferguson reminds us that whatever God is he was before anything else existed. That means holiness can’t be defined simply as separation from evil, because there was no evil when the universe hadn’t yet been created.
God’s holiness is primarily something positive. It is his absolute, complete, and eternal devotion to himself and his glory. It can be seen in the love that existed between the Father, Son, and Spirit before time. A Trinitarian love. An unimaginably beautiful and satisfying love, unlike all others, because it is eternally right, good, and joy-filled.
Eden’s Sin Undone
So out of the glad overflow of his holiness, God sent Jesus into the world so that we too might be “holy,” that is, wholly devoted to him and his glory (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:16; Heb. 12:14). And Christmas means that we can be.
What made the first Christmas “holy?” It was certainly unlike any other night before or since. But more precisely, God was showing us what lengths he would go to for the sake of his name. The Son of God appeared in human skin to receive the judgment for our rebellion and obtain the righteousness we had forfeited in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve’s rejection would not be the last word. Our despair was being swallowed up by the grace and truth that came through Jesus Christ.
God’s commitment to his sovereignty and mercy were on full display as he “hung the door of history on the hinge of a Bethlehem stable.” And the more we understand why this baby was born 2000 years ago to a teenage girl in a small middle Eastern town, the more we’ll want to know him and be holy like him.
So while I appreciate beautiful, soaring renditions of “O Holy Night,” I like it best when the lyrics help me understand what was really happening. That’s why we recorded O Holy Night (Hear the Gospel Story). I love the arrangement, but it’s better listened to than sung by a church. So this year we put together an acoustic video featuring Charity Mick and my daughter, McKenzie, to show how it might be adapted for congregational use. Enjoy.