O Holy Night / Minuit, Chrétiens!

There is no doubt that one of the most popular carols in recent years has been O Holy Night. Sung by a host of household names including Andrea Bocelli, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Nat King Cole, its continued popularity is not surprising.  While listening to a lovely French rendition this week by Horizon Louange,[1] I was greatly surprised to learn, however, that O Holy Night was first written in French by an allegedly “never particularly religious”[2] winemaker in 1843 under the title Minuit, Chrétiens! (Midnight, Christians) and then translated into English only in 1855.

In this post, I seek to do two things:

i) briefly compare the two versions and highlight a few interesting theological differences;

ii) talk about what I believe to be the most beautiful and profound part of the French version and think about how it might help us worship on Christmas Day.

Here is the French version with my attempt at a translation beside:

Minuit, chrétiens,

C’est l’heure solennelle

Où l’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous

Pour effacer la tache originelle

Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.

Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance

En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur.

Peuple, à genoux, attends ta délivrance!

Noel! Noel! Voici le Rédempteur!

Noel! Noel! Voici le Rédempteur!

 

Christians, it’s midnight,

the hour of celebration

where the Man-God came down to us

to remove the original stain (of sin)

and halt the wrath of his Father.

The whole world is shaking with hope

in this night which gives it a Saviour.

People, kneel down, await your deliverance!

Noel! Noel! Behold the redeemer!

Noel! Noel! Behold the redeemer!

 

 

Le Rédempteur

A brisé toute entrave:

La terre est libre et le ciel est ouvert.

Il voit un frère où n’était qu’un esclave,

L’amour unit ceux qu’enchainait le fer.

Qui Lui dira notre reconnaissance?

C’est pour nous tous qu’Il nait,

Qu’Il souffre et meurt.

Peuple, debout, chante ta délivrance!

Noel! Noel! Chantons le Rédempteur!

Noel! Noel! Chantons le Rédempteur!

 

The Redeemer

has broken every obstacle;

the earth is free and heaven is open.

He sees a brother where there was but a slave;

love unites those that the sword imprisoned.

Who will express our thankfulness to him?

It’s for us all that he is born,

suffers, and dies.

People, stand up, sing of your deliverance!

Noel! Noel! Let’s sing of the Redeemer!

Noel! Noel! Let’s sing of the Redeemer!

 

Rightly, the English translation with which we are hopefully reasonably familiar[3] is rather different from the French version. Here are three key differences which are interesting theologically.

1) The French version sings of “l’Homme Dieu” (literally, the Man-God). This is a very direct way of describing the essence of the Incarnation: that the Word became flesh, that God became man, fully human and fully divine. While the English version sings of “the night of our dear Saviour’s birth”, it does not explicitly sing of the hypostatic union.

2) The French version sings of “effacer la tache originelle / et de Son Père arrêter le courroux (“removing the original stain of sin and halting the wrath of God the Father”). The English version (“Long lay the world in sin and error pining / ‘Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth”) steers clear of the notion of the wrath of God, but focuses on humanity’s sin and the Spirit’s overcoming sinful flesh. Both versions here are commendable for how they express the condition that Christ’s arrival came to resolve, albeit in slightly different ways.

3) For the final verse, the sequence of ideas is also quite different. Moreover, while the French version focuses on the divine initiative; the English adaptation introduces more of a communal, even an exhortatory element. In the French version, it simply talks about the Redeemer’s opening the way to heaven and Redeemer’s seeing to the change in our status from slave to brother. The English adaptation, slightly differently, goes: “Truly he taught us to love one another” and “the slave is our brother”.

All this leads me to think that the French winemaker was theologically astute and that the English adaptation, while very fine in places, does not quite match up to the French original. The English adaptation nobly encourages our participation, but perhaps dilutes some of the sharper theological points.

Finally, the part which I found most moving, and which is helping me worship this Christmas is the beautifully balanced final lines before the refrain. In the first verse, the French version goes: “Peuple, à genoux, attends ta délivrance” (People, kneel down, await your deliverance!); and in the final verse: “Peuple, debout, chante ta délivrance” (People, stand up, sing of your deliverance!).

The theological power does not quite come through in the same way in the English version (“Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices! … Christ is the Lord, then ever! ever praise we!”). I love the journey from a people kneeling awaiting its deliverance to a people triumphantly standing singing of its deliverance.

I believe that this captures the spirit of Advent and Christmas Day itself. Advent is the period where we await the coming of the Saviour. It is a time for reflection and the posture of kneeling is appropriate. Yet, when we celebrate the coming of Christ, our Redeemer, on Christmas Day, the right response is to stand – if we are able – and to sing of our deliverance, the freedom that is set in motion by his first coming.

This carol offers us an invitation to kneel and recognise we need a Saviour to come for us, and then to arise and sing of that Saviour, when He comes. I believe that this is a fine illustration of the true meaning of Christmas.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyAk3shGA7Y

[2] https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/christmas/o-holy-night-original-lyrics-composer-recordings/

[3] If not: https://www.carols.org.uk/ba32-o-holy-night.htm

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