Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Let Us Sing the Redeemer! (Cantique de Noel)

Once upon a time in a public-school high school French class we sang "O Holy Night" with its original French text. Several years ago I remembered this as Amore and I rehearsed the English translation for a church Christmas concert.

The thing is, I couldn't remember a word of the French lyrics.  So the chase began.

When I eventually found the words, delayed by my failure to recall the French title, I discovered a beautiful, much stronger gospel message than in the English lyrics we Americans usually sing. The origin story explained why yet added to the mystique of the beautiful words.

In mid-nineteenth-century France, an obscure parish priest requested that a marginally involved poet-wine merchant in his congregation compose a poem for the midnight Mass dividing Christmas Eve from Christmas proper. The poet, Placide Cappeau, obliged and uncharacteristically felt moved to find music for his piece. For the tune he turned to Adolphe Adam, a French composer of Jewish heritage.

The song quickly became popular among the people. When the poet renounced faith in God and joined the socialist party and church leaders learned the composer was of Jewish lineage, they decried the song as unbecoming to Christian worship (from "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" as reprinted at BeliefNet). So much did the people love this Christmas carol that their efforts availed little.

In the next decade or so, "Cantique de Noël" came to the attention of American abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight, who translated the poem for American carolers, but with the addition of an abolitionist spin not present in the original.

For reasons I do not know, Dwight softened the first verse's lyrics about the God-man erasing original sin and stopping His Father's anger. Instead he offered a validation of the soul's worth. In the second verse, he replaced a line about God in the manger preaching to our pride with the true but very different sentiment, "In all our trials born to be our friend."

The greatest change, however, occurs in the third stanza. The original speaks of a mighty Redeemer who has broken shackles, set earth free, and opened heaven. This Redeemer now regards the slaves as brothers, uniting them in love.

Then Cappeau challenges the singers and hearers to respond to so great a redemption:
Who will tell him our gratitude?
It is for us all that He suffered and died:
People, stand!  Sing your deliverance,
Christmas! Christmas!  Let us sing the Redeemer!
Christmas! Christmas!  Let us sing the Redeemer!
In its place, Dwight seized upon the original slavery imagery and anticipated an end to all human oppression. The end of slavery in the United States was unequivocally a good thing; by no means do I intend to argue against it.

That said, it grieves me that English-speaking Christians have lost the sense of the original French lyric which reminds me that I myself, regardless of race or ethnicity, am a slave set free, that my Redeemer rent heaven to break my shackles, our shackles, that the "King of kings born in a humble manger" suffered and died for me. This deliverance and nothing else unites us former slaves in love. Will I tell Him my gratitude? Will I, this Christmas, sing of my deliverance?

Translation, especially of poetry, is notoriously tricky business. Eugene Peterson, in Eat This Book, cites an Italian proverb to the effect that "the translator is a traitor." That said, since I can't teach you enough French to read the original "Cantique de Noël" for yourselves, I offer for your Christmas blessing my best attempt at a literal (not rhymed or singable) translation of the original text. Those of you proficient in reading French would do better to follow the link below (and correct me where I've erred).

Midnight! Christians, it is the solemn hour
When the man God descended unto us,
To erase original sin
And to stop His Father’s anger:
The whole world trembles with hope
At this night which gives us a Savior.
People, to your knees! Await* your deliverance,
Christmas! Christmas! Here is the Redeemer!
Christmas! Christmas! Here is the Redeemer!

Let the burning light of our faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the Child,
As formerly, when a bright star
Led the chiefs of the East there.
The King of kings is born in a humble manger,
Powerful men of the day, proud of your grandeur—
It is from there [the manger] that a God preaches to your pride,
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken all shackles,
The earth is free and heaven is opened.
He [the Redeemer] sees a brother where was only a slave;
Love unites those whom iron had chained,
Who will tell him our gratitude?
It is for us all that He suffered and died:
People, stand! Sing your deliverance,
Christmas! Christmas! Let us sing the Redeemer!
Christmas! Christmas! Let us sing the Redeemer!
(French text, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure; trans., C. Moore)
*alternately "Expect" or "Be ready for"

May the Redeemer grant you a heart full of worship this Christmas with time to kneel before the manger and adore our Lord and Savior.

Below you may view a contemporary French-Canadian arrangement with lyrics displayed:

And here is a tenor's rendition in classical style:

P.S.  For the inquisitive, here are the best websites I found:
http://www.beliefnet.com/story/94/story_9463.html story behind the song – English
www.carols.org.uk/ba32-o-holy-night.htm English lyrics as we sing them

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