In 1865, after the civil war, after Lincoln’s tragic death, a Philadelphia Episcopalian priest visited the Holy Land. While he was there he took a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, so he could attend Christmas Eve services at the ancient basilica erected over the traditional site of the nativity. That basilica was built in 326 AD by the Emperor Constantine. The service, a traditional Orthodox Christmas Eve service, lasted from 10 pm to 3 am, which is actually kind of short for a Christmas Eve Service.
But the length of the service was not what impressed this clergyman that night. “Before dark,” he wrote, “we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.”
The clergyman tucked the memory away in his heart, and let it sit for a while, until three years later, it bloomed, and became a poem.
The clergyman was Phillip Brooks, and the poem he wrote was, O Little Town of Bethlehem.
Brooks was one of the most famous pastors of his day, but fame did not come quickly to him. He graduated from Harvard at the age of 20, and went back to his old high school to teach, and was fired soon after he started. He felt like a miserable failure, but decided to use his love of teaching for the church, and entered Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. He hit his stride there, and after graduating and being ordained, he became the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Philadelphia. He gathered national fame as a preacher, publishing several books of sermons that became best sellers in their. Although he was an accomplished theologian, he was also known for a dynamic children’s ministry. Under his leadership the Sunday School program at his church grew from 36 children to well over a thousand. It took 19 years, but still, that’s solid growth!
In spite of its rich and often complex theology, Brooks wrote O Little Town of Bethlehem as a poem for children. There is a little-known fourth verse, directed explicitly to children:
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the undefiled;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
The reason we don’t sing that verse is the part where he calls Jesus the “Son of the undefiled.” The Undefiled he is referring to is Mary, and this was so close to the Catholic belief that Mary was born without sin, that Protestants just left it out. It’s a shame we had to let our differences over doctrine get in the way so often.
Brooks showed the poem to his organist, Lewis Redner, a real estate mogul who played the organ in his spare time for Sunday School program at the church. Christmas was coming, and Brooks wondered if Redner might be able to pen a little tune for the song. Redner agreed, but had a hard time coming up with one.
“The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure,” Redner later wrote. “We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? I replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony.” It’s hard to believe this well-known song was penned at the last minute. Redner added to his account, “Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”
One of Brooks parishioners owned a book store, and decided to sell the carol as a pamphlet. It was not exactly a best seller, but the rector of All Saints’ Church, in Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn book, and he was the one who gave the tune its name: St. Louis. I don’t know if he was making the composer a saint, or if there was another St. Louis he had in mind. Later Ralph Vaughan Williams set the words to an old English Folk song called Forest Green.
This is a children’s poem, yet the words are rich with meaning. I have to be honest and say that for years it was my least favorite Christmas Carol. Whenever I sang it, the words just rolled out of my mouth without ever getting to my brain, or my heart.
Then one year I was spending Christmas in Germany. My mother was supposed to come over, and we were going to head to England, where we would spend a Dicken’s Christmas together, but she got sick, and could not make it. It would be the first year I ever spent Christmas without extended family, and I was started to dread the season. All the students in the dorm where I lived were going home for Christmas, and I was a typically broke student. It did not look to be a happy Christmas.
I had one Christmas tape, Amy Grant’s Christmas album, which I played frequently as Christmas approached. One night I was cooking dinner, with the tape player on, and the phrase, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” For the first time, the lyrics got into my brain, and sank down deep in my heart. Fears I had, in abundance, hope I needed, and to think that both meet in the coming of Jesus hit me right where I lived. That stanza opened the whole carol up for me.
The hopes and fears of all the years… If you follow the news at all, this has to hit where you live. The market is tanking, the government is shut down, trouble abroad, trouble at home–and that was just last Friday! But as I sing this I understand that fears need to be wedded to hope. Our hope is in Christ, who overcomes our fears.
In the second verse we sing to God the King, but in the third verse we see how God’s gifts come to us.
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
The greatest gift is not announced with fanfare and pomp. And it is not a new car on Christmas day, or an Instant Pot, or new socks.
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
The gift is not under a tree, or out in the driveway, or found in a box covered with wrapping paper. We find God’s gift in our hearts. And what do we find in our hearts? The blessings of Heaven. But there is a catch.
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in
Yes, we have the blessings of Heaven in our hearts, but they exist there amid all the other things that lay in our hearts; the hopes and fears, the noise of the world, the desires that might lead us astray, the feelings of anger, hurt, and worst of all the foolish pride we harbor. All of this clouds our ability to really receive God’s gift to us. What is needed is a letting go. It is not the loud and boisterous who make claim to the blessings of the God. That is one way of getting what you want, but it is not God’s way of getting what God has in store for you. Where meek souls will receive him… We quiet our hearts, we quiet the fears, the longings, the pride, the feelings. And we make a place for Christ, the Son of God who was born, not in a palace, but in a stable.
The last verse is a prayer.
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
As Mary delivered the baby Jesus in the stable, he was born also in the hearts of those who follow him. Where does Christ live? Not in the halls of power, and those who seek to serve him with power only disgrace his name. Jesus is not an invading force.
Nor is Jesus found in the pomp and circumstances of the world, or even of the church. Nor is the Son of God found in traditions of the church, or the great theologies of the church. He must first be found in our hearts. If he is there, if he is in our hearts, then the pomp and circumstances of worship serve to magnify his presence in us. Then the traditions serve to help us know better the King of Kings. Then the great theologies can help us understand better who it is that resides in us. That Christ was born of Mary is a historical fact, which may or may have significance to us as a historical fact. But that Christ is born in us, that is a life-changing fact, one that takes Jesus out if the abstract, and into the concrete reality of our lives. For Jesus is born in us. In a sense we are all Mary, except that Jesus does not reside in our womb, but in our hearts. He is Emmanuel, God with us!
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel