Chains Shall He Break
Luke 2:1-20. “Chains Shall He Break” Chistmas Eve sermon 2023.
On the radio.
It’s not my fault. Christmas music is just too good. There I was driving on a nice day, windows down, radio on. I’m at a stoplight and glance at the people in the car next to me who are looking at me like mice are crawling out of my ears as my baritone voice strains to match the high notes of Mariah Carrey’s version of “O Holy Night.” I mean I was belting it out but I can’t quite match her soprano. Caught again. But it is not my fault, I have some spiritual predisposition to sing along with gusto.
Other songs don’t have that power over me. I can nod along to O Come All Ye Faithful and even Springsteen’s version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. But when O Holy Night comes on, it’s a full-throated endeavor that should embarrass me but doesn’t.
I just think it’s beautiful as it recalls the events and conveys the impact Christmas Eve. My imagination opens and I see the stars and the shepherds and Mary’s quiet reflection. I get to the part about falling on your knees and remember that there is beauty and truth and grace in the world that are worth giving my allegiance to.
The story behind O Holy Night.
Can you believe that O Holy Night was once banned by churches in France? According to Ace Collins the story behind the song is as powerful as the song itself. In the 1840s, a French priest asked a church member, Placide Cappeau, who was a poet more known for his wine consumption than church attendance to compose a poem for Christmas Eve. Like the Christmas story itself, God uses unlikely folks to advance goodness in the world.
During a long carriage ride on a bumpy road, he imagined being at the nativity. The poem was powerful, but he thought it would be better if set to music, so he asked his friend, Adolphe Adam, to put it to music. Instantly, the song became popular. Churches all over France incorporated it into their Christmas services.
But the guy who wrote the lyrics changed his political affiliation he was on the outs with the church and they when folks found out that a Jewish man composed the music, suddenly they banned the song and said it was, devoid of the spirit of religion. Although it was banned, some folks kept it alive and sang it at family gatherings.
An anti-slavery anthem.
Meanwhile, across the sea in the United States, there was John Sullivan Dwight, a brilliant guy who graduated from Harvard Divinity School who had such terrible anxiety that every time he got up to preach, he got physically ill. Back then, people weren’t understanding about anxiety disorders, and their cruelty drove him out of ministry. He changed careers and started a music journal. After 30 years of publication, when looking for new material, he came across O Holy Night.
It inspired him immediately. Not just as a great piece of Christmas music. He was an ardent abolitionist who saw the power in the line: “chains shall he break for the slave is our brother.” He translated it into English and, in my opinion, improved it. The French version talks about God’s anger and erasing the stain of original sin, where his version is more elegant, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.” He published it hoping it would be more than another pretty Christmas song. He hoped it could become an anthem of the anti-slavery movement, which it did! The Christmas message broke through for many people and melded with real-world implications. It wasn’t just a warm story about Mary and Joesph in a barn long ago. It had implications for what was going on in their world.
Jesus broke the chains, but it wasn’t that slavery was abolished through divine fiat. It had to have people who embraced the Christmas message and act on it on the behalf of others.
I think that’s right. We hear the Christmas message and realize God’s law is love and the gospel is peace. We realize we are all brothers and sisters and called to alleviate the suffering of our brothers and sisters.
Christmas in Bethlehem, 2023.
Tonight, in Bethlehem, Christmas celebrations have been cancelled due to the Israel-Hamas war. Bethlehem in Gaza. The decorations have been taken down, the giant tree in the center of town is dark. The world needs to hear again his law is love and his gospel is peace. May we all let the Christmas message sink in and work for peace however we can within our own lives and relationships. And we pray that one day all oppression shall cease.
Breaking chains of bondage today.
I’ve been thinking about that line about chains shall he break. There are a lot of chains if you have the eyes to see. How many can you name? Poverty, war, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all the other phobias. The chains begin to break when we get over our fears of the other and recognize our common humanity.
There are those individual chains, too.
One can be a slave to alcohol, pills, gambling, shopping, porn, computer games. Maybe it’s guilt and shame that bind you. Or, perhaps it is negative attitudes and thoughts that keep you bound. Maybe bitterness and grudges that you can’t get past. Maybe it’s grief, or disappointment. Or getting stuck in the past, wishing for a yesteryear that can’t be recreated. Maybe the chains are other people’s attitudes or expectations that aren’t fit for you. Is there anyone here with chains?
Jesus comes that we might be free. In Luke 4, when Jesus defined what his ministry was about, he said he came to set captives free.
So, how does this work? How do chains break?
Feel your worth. The soul feels its worth, the song says. We understand that Jesus doesn’t want you bound. You don’t deserve to be bound, God’s desires for you are good, not evil. When you realize that, you learn to pray and tap into God’s liberating power, where you start seeing solutions instead of thinking you are destined for misery.
Second, we follow the ways of Jesus. We pray, we connect spiritually. We practice gratitude, learn to forgive, get out of ourselves and serve someone else, re-align our priorities. We do our part and it starts a spiritual chain reaction. Silently, so silently the wonderous gift of freedom and new perspectives are given.
Third, we connect with others. We surround ourselves with positive people who encourage us, inspire us. Maybe it means reaching out to someone and asking advice or talking to a counselor. It’s about doing what we can.
Chains shall he break when we do our part and act in alignment with the Spirit.
On the radio.
On Christmas Eve, 1906, Alexander Grahm Bell’s chief chemist, Reginald Fessenden, made the first vocal radio broadcast ever to ships at sea who had only heard beeps and dashes. As he read the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel, it must have seemed like angels, or a miracle. After he read the gospel, he picked up his violin and played O Holy Night and sang along with it, making it the very first song heard on the radio. And it has been playing ever since. And once in a while it catches someone driving along in their car, minding their own business and causes them to sing out, and dream about a better world.
It’s not my fault. It’s the Christmas spirit that gets in and moves us to be better. May it be so for you this holy night. Amen.