Until He Appeared
O Holy Night. The stars are shining brightly. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error, pining. ‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
In 1847, Placide Cappeau was the “Commissionaire of Wines” as well as a gifted poet in a small town in France. Not at all known for his church attendance, Cappeau was surprised when his parish priest asked him to pen a poem for Christmas mass. Taking the Priest’s guidance to meditate on the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel, Cappeau responded with "Cantique de Noel" while on a journey to Paris. Our hymn, so celebrated today and established as O Holy Night, started with this poem.
In true poetic fashion, Cappeau captures the gospel metaphors of light coming into the darkness with the first line. Even though it is night, the stars are brightly shining. For the Savior to be born at night speaks to the human condition that so desperately needs Him. We stumble in the darkness without that Light. The poet goes on to describe just what sort of darkness we are living in. Without the Savior’s light, we dwell in sin and error-- pining.
Pining isn’t a word I’ve ever used on my own. I remember the older men in my life using it, usually like this: “Quit pining after that girl!” It is a word for suffering and waiting, longing for the return of something that is missed. Cappeau lifts our bleak circumstances to the front of his poem. We long for something to be made right even if we can’t put our finger on what that is specifically. Darkness often hides the particular.
We lie in sin and error, pining even now, until He appeared-- the Savior. And when He appeared every soul could begin to see its worth. We save what we value. What we will do to save something ascribes its worth to the one who saves it. Think of your great grandfather’s toolbox, or your great-great grandmother’s chest of drawers-- how important are those things to your family? I would never know the worth of my soul until I consider how far the Savior will go to save it. What is the price He would pay? That’s the worth.
Cappeau shows us that God does not wait until the death of His Son to assign this value, but clearly expresses it at the start. To see this, we must understand what we are all seeking in this dark world, namely security and significance. I will do almost anything to establish a safe place and a meaningful existence. By sending Jesus into the world as a baby, God confronts us with our deepest fears. For Jesus to come as a babe in a manger meant that He not only started in extreme vulnerability (the opposite of security) but also in the deepest humility (the opposite of significance). In Jesus, and through this poem, God shows us at the start that we can be small. We can be weak. Our strength and meaning do not come from our size.
Jesus constantly, surely as an infant, placed His very life in the security of His Father’s hands. Jesus lived humbly dependent upon the Father’s provision and deeply satisfied with the Father’s purpose for His life. ‘Til He appeared, no soul could truly know its worth; no life could know the purpose for which it was formed. But now we can. For God so loved the world. He came.