‘He sees a brother where there was only a slave’

One minor family Christmas tradition I’ve had for several years now is to share a Christmas song video on Facebook with Terrianne each day during the few weeks preceding and including Christmas. I don’t know how many of the songs she listens to — it’s a crazy busy time of the year for her — but I like Christmas music almost as much as she does, so I freely confess that I’ve spent my time looking for new videos as much for myself as I have for her.

For some reason, this year I kept on coming back to versions of one of the season’s most beloved songs, O Holy Night, a song originally written in French in 1847. I’ve long found it to be a powerful hymn, but this year I found it more meaningful than usual. No matter how many times I heard the third stanza, it never failed to speak to me:

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.

Why do those words stand out so much to me this year? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because we live in a culture that seems to be growing increasingly hostile to the marginalized, even (or, sadly, sometimes especially) among those who claim to be followers of the One whose birth we celebrate. Maybe it’s because the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow seem prophetic: “Hate is strong and mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good will to men.” Maybe it’s because I’ve spent more time this year analyzing my faith and thinking about what it means to be truly a Christian. Maybe …

As I’ve reflected and meditated, I’ve come to the conclusion that the core of my Christian faith is exactly what O Holy Night says: The law of God is love, and the gospel Jesus taught is one of peace and reconciliation. As the apostle Paul suggested, all the trappings of faith and of religion mean nothing if we don’t love. And wasn’t it Jesus himself who said that love for one another is the key to knowing who is a true pupil of his?

And how do we love others? I’m still trying to figure that out; I know I often don’t do it very well. Maybe part of answer can be found in original French words of the hymn:

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

A literal translation comes out something like this:

He sees a brother where there was only a slave.

There’s a subtle difference from the familiar English interpretation. The French is less metaphorical, more active. The first step to loving the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and especially those those who mistreat us is to see them as God sees them, as co-members of a divine family. If we are all children of a loving God, the first key to loving is to see God’s DNA, so to speak, in other people. All of us were born to love and to be loved.

Most of the characters in the familiar Nativity accounts understood that. That shouldn’t be surprising: There’s a truth there that is somehow built into us, noticeable when we naturally experience compassion — or enter the presence of a newborn. There’s even an ancient Hindu greeting, known to English speakers as namaste, that means something like “the sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you.”

“He sees a brother where there was only a slave.” That’s a compelling message. How easy it is to put labels on people, labels that obscure their divine nature of our sisters and brothers. Some of those labels come from our culture; racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, classism, nationalism and various other isms all play a role. So do our own experiences with individuals; it can be especially challenging to love and forgive those who have wronged us.

The opposite of love is usually thought of as hate, but I tend to think the real opposite is fear. It wasn’t hate that made Herod the villain in Matthew’s Nativity account, but fear.

The Christmas story reminds us that the antidote to fear is to love — just as Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, the shepherds and the magi did. If we fail to see that, we’re missing the point of the holiday, the holy day, that we celebrate today.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis taken at the Church of the Angels in Palestine. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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