“Long lay the world, in sin and error pining;
‘Til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
These words in the most famous of Christmas hymns – O Holy Night – have long been my favorite. In my opinion, no lyric in all of Christendom adequately captures the great juxtaposition and paradox of the human condition. The word pining is a complex one with varying degrees of subtlety in its definitions, but I think can best be expressed in this instance as “suffering with longing.” The hymn writer, Frenchman Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, thinking about the condition of the human race before the birth of Christ, aptly described our predicament: we are, on the one hand, full of error and prone to sin; we are suffering with longing, pining for an existence that is better than the one we currently experience. And yet on the other hand, humans lay in the world, generation after generation, fully aware of this condition, yet still having hope that the life we really want is somehow, somewhere, out there.
It’s a great paradox: we have empirical data that says life is hard, and we can’t even keep our own standards for good behavior, much less others keep the standards we think they should; we are in sin and error. But we pretend we can rise above it, or that we aren’t subject to the truth of life’s unmet expectations. We are pining, suffering with longing, for that existential angst in our hearts to be quenched with joy, peace, and contentment that is beyond our wildest dreams. Somehow we believe we can have it, even though all evidence points to the contrary.
Then He appeared. The Christ child was born, God manifest in the flesh, and something changed – that other world out there, the one where people are always nice, our stuff doesn’t break, children don’t disobey, food never gets cold, clothes don’t wear out, parents don’t divorce, orphans don’t exist, jobs don’t get eliminated, eyes don’t cry, and hearts don’t break – that world, has been made available. Not in our individual circumstances. But better. In the deepest, most untouchable, mysterious, yet undeniable place in the universe – our hearts. This is the gift for which we had been waiting.
The God of heaven, the Creator of all things, stepping into time and space as a baby with the foreordained purpose of dying on the cross to pay a debt He didn’t owe for men and women writhing in endless pining, brought change to the human heart. The hymn writer called it a “soul,” and His appearance made its quenching a reality, one that otherwise wasn’t possible.
Jesus came to earth as a Jew in Palestine, but His ethnicity and nationality had no bearing the breadth of his love for mankind. That’s why the hymn writer of O Holy Night went on to write,
“Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.”
Christ fulfills our deepest desires because the greatest longing we have is that of love – the longing to love and be loved unconditionally. Regardless of race or ethnicity, color or gender, language or social status. This is probably why the 19th century American writer John Sullivan Dwight took these words of Placide and made them his battle cry for freeing slaves in his time. Dwight, a leading abolitionist, felt these words encapsulated the longing God had given him in his heart – to see slavery end in the South in America. Dwight was responsible for making this hymn famous in the Americas.
In a very real way, orphans around the world face chains of their own. Their oppression often ends in actual physical slavery, but many more times, it’s slavery of the mind. They grow up in an environment where the precious words of O Holy Night not only have zero relevance, but have zero possibility. Why is this? Because the soul hasn’t yet felt its worth.
An advent of Jesus into their lives, just like He did into Bethlehem on that Holy Night so long ago, is missing. And until He invades the heart like John Sullivan Dwight invaded the American South to break the chains of slavery, oppression of the mind, of the hopes, and of the dreams of thousands of orphans across the globe will continue.
Christmases come and go, which means the singing of O Holy Night does the same. But in Jesus Christ, that blessed babe in a manger, by His life’s one pursuit – death on a cross for the sins of people everywhere – the soul can feel its worth any time, anywhere, among any people, and for our purposes, among the orphans we look to serve in Africa and elsewhere.
This Christmas season, my prayer is that each of us would find a way to bring an Advent into the life of just one person who longs to make a difference in an orphan’s life. Introducing an orphan to Jesus will do more for that child than any well, food pack, sponsorship, or pair of shoes could do. Of course those things are wonderful, and we aim to provide those as well through our ministry, and to do it with excellence. But none of those bring salve to the soul that lay broken and helpless in a world of sin and error. None of those break the chains of oppression that prison the mind of these young ones.
Only One does. And it’s His appearance we celebrate this season.