O Little Town of Bethlehem

Dr. Ray Pritchard
Dr. Ray Pritchard
2015 10 Dec

“’Where will the Messiah be born?’ ‘In the town of Bethlehem in Judea,’ they answered” (Matthew 4:4-5 GNT).

In a strange way, John Wilkes Booth had something to do with this Christmas carol. 

A young Philadelphia minister named Phillips Brooks greatly admired Abraham Lincoln. When Booth assassinated Mr. Lincoln in April 1865, Rev. Brooks felt the loss deeply. When the slain president’s body lay in state in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, on its way to back home to Springfield, IL for eventual burial, the young Episcopal clergyman preached a sermon on the life and death of America’s Civil War president.

A few months later, still grief-stricken, Phillips Brooks traveled to the Holy Land. The itinerary included a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Back then it truly was a small village, far removed from the bustling city it would later become. By nightfall he was in the field where, according to tradition, the shepherds heard the angelic announcement. Then he attended the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Something about the beauty and simplicity of that visit stayed with Phillips Brooks when he returned to America. Three years later he needed a Christmas poem for the children’s service at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. Remembering his visit to Bethlehem, he decided to write the poem himself. He then gave it to Lewis Redner, the church organist, who composed the music in time for the children to sing it in the service. “O Little of Bethlehem” quickly became a favorite after it was published in 1874.

Writing to the children of his congregation, he recalled that first visit:

“I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the “wonderful night” of the Savior’s birth.”

The first line of the first verse gives us a poetic picture of Bethlehem as Phillips Brooks saw it:

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie

But the end of the first verse reminds us Bethlehem was more than a picturesque by-way in the Holy Land:

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

As we come to the end of this year, we certainly have had our share of “hopes and fears.” In some ways, it seems like we end the year on a somber note, given the shaky state of the world. But God’s answer to our anxiety can be found in a manger in Bethlehem. There we find the baby who will bring us peace now and one day will bring peace to the whole world.

The familiar words of the third verse offer us this wonderful invitation:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

So he does! May that be your experience this Christmas season. 

Let’s listen together as Sarah McLachlan sings this lovely carol.

O God, lead us again to the place where Mary laid her child so we may know that you choose the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. Amen.

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