o holy night

One hundred and ten years ago, on this day, the first experimental public radio broadcast rang out through a young America. Reginald Fessenden’s voice rang through the radio on Christmas Eve 1906, reading the story of the birth of Christ from Luke 2. After reading, he played the classic carol “O Holy Night.”

You know the words, right? A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices? It’s a beautiful picture. That big star in the sky in Bethlehem, pointing us in present-day Chicago and Nashville and all the other towns and cities to an eternal hope. I can picture the entire tired world, eyes lifted, let out a collective sigh–“we can’t do it alone,” they all think.

I’d like to think that Fessenden had high hopes for the message of his radio broadcast all those years ago, that it would sit in the still, small part of hearts and then grow, grow, grow, like a soul only can when it knows the love of Christ.

What I do know, though, is that 1906 was not the freest of all the years in American history. Blacks and whites were racially segregated under Jim Crow and separate-but-equal under Plessy v. Ferguson. On September 22, 1906, riots broke out in Atlanta after a play promoting Klansmen premiered and headlines were published falsely claiming a black man had sexually assaulted white women. For three days, the riots raged. People died. On October 11 in San Francisco, the Board of Education ordered Japanese immigrants to attend racially segregated schools–with internment to come decades later under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

So where’s the happy medium between being grateful for a message of peace in a hurried, tired world and understanding that almost no one can just drop all the baggage and be free? What’s the difference between being free in Christ and living in a world where who you are doesn’t measure up?

On this Christmas Eve, I am grateful for the promise of hope in Christ and uncomfortable with the severe gashes left torn open in our world. If you have the time, I often think back to this post from Erin Taylor Green’s blog that talks about how Scripture has been used to justify hate all throughout American history.

My favorite excerpt is this:

“…while Christ walked the earth, we took words of scripture and skewed them to persecute him. For centuries we have perverted His words and turned them into our own.  We have taken His words and picked and chosen the ones that fit our current agendas, the ones that help to prove our points.”

Not long ago, people used Scripture to justify the Trail of Tears and the African slave trade, and I’m sure they could have used it for our Japanese internment camps as well. These days, Scripture is often used to justify a stance against gay marriage, or immigration status, or generally anything that would be a perceived loss of power in our evangelical Christian stronghold on the country.

The last verse of “O Holy Night” is as follows:

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,
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise His Holy name!

Those third and fourth lines–those are music to my ears. I feel like everyone’s just clenching their hands, hoping for a not-tone-deaf Christmas message, and those lines remind me that both our Lord and people who love him know that there are people who aren’t free, who aren’t okay, who can’t just will themselves “free” as defined by a conservative Christian. It validates the yearning in my heart for us to realize the hurt we as the church have done, consistently, to other groups of people and to recognize the ugly power we have in controlling the freedom of others.

On that first radio broadcast in 1906, Reginald Fessenden relayed his message of Christ’s hope into a hurting world. This year, the message still falls on ears that are preoccupied, burdened, hurting.

The world is a big place, and there are a lot of reasons to be outraged. But it’s also a small town, and your act of grace in a hurting world does more than you might think. Our country is still young–we shape history each day. May I ask one wish of you this Christmas? This year, let’s not be people who use the Lord’s name to justify hatred when we know his law is love and his gospel peace. The gashes in all of us are wide and deep, and so often created by others. He can heal them, and I want to be a part of that.


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