“Chains Shall He Break”

It was Advent 1843, and the French village of Roquemaure was preparing to celebrate both the season and the restoration of the church’s pipe organ. The parish priest asked a local wine distributer who had a reputation as a poet, Placide Cappeau, to write a poem in honor of the dual celebrations.

By Cappeau’s claim, he began working on the poem in a stagecoach. He was on his way to Paris while imagining the first Christmas. His final work, “Minuit, Chrétiens” was a masterpiece of Nativity wonder, and upon hearing it recited a few years later, Cappeau’s friend, Adolphe Adams put the poem to music.

In 1847, “Minuit, Chrétiens” was performed for the first time at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. For the next several Advent seasons the song was wildly popular in southern France, until the identities of the writer and composer became an issue. It was discovered by the authorities that Placide Cappeau was not a church-going man, not in the least, and his reputation as a poet was only exceeded by his reputation as a drunk and political revolutionary. 

Meanwhile, Adams was Jewish, and the thoughts of a beloved carol being composed by someone who didn’t even celebrate the birth of Jesus proved a bridge too far. The Catholic hierarchy declared “Minuit, Chrétiens” unfit and banned it from congregational use.

The hymn might have fallen into complete obscurity if it had not been for a music-loving Unitarian minister who first heard it in 1855. John Sullivan Dwight, a passionate activist in the anti-slavery movement, was struck by a portion of Cappeau’s third stanza. Translated into English it read: “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.”

Dwight ended up translating the entire song, and the outlawed “Minuit, Chrétiens” became the abolitionist’s “O Holy Night.” Today, it is one of the most beloved Advent songs in the English language, but it was not always so. Before the Civil War, and in the decades that followed, “O Holy Night” was often forbidden in the American South. It was “too political,” too controversial. 

Even into the 20th century, as the first stanza of the song was being belted out in churches all over North America, Reverend Dwight’s favorite verse “lay in sin and error pining.” Singing of shining stars, the thrill of hope, bright angels, and the “dear Savior’s birth” was easy. But this talk of freeing slaves, ending oppression, and embracing the outsider as a brother or sister? That was going too far.

Yet, that is the revolutionary message of Advent, and yes, of Jesus. The Christ did not come to bless our prejudices or to prop up our carefully crafted schemes that marginalize others. He came to break our chains, to set people free – even when the church refuses to acknowledge or participate in this liberation. Cappeau, Adams, and Dwight were right all along: “In his Name all oppression shall cease…for his law is love, and his gospel is peace.” Amen.

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