Advent 3: O Little Town of Bethlehem

One hundred sixty-eight years ago this Advent season, the priest and the organist of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church combined their talents to create a carol which is perfect in its simplicity and wonder. For Phillip Brooks, the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were inspired by the profound memory of his 1865 visit to the Holy Land. 

In the summer and fall of 1865, Brooks had the great joy of traveling in Europe. 

By December, his travels took him to the holy places in Israel and Palestine. On Christmas Eve, he arrived in the little town across the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem. For those who have travelled to the Holy Land in recent years, Bethlehem is anything but a small quaint village. But in 1865, Bethlehem was a quaint small town. That night, Brooks visited the old Church of the Nativity where tradition indicates the birth of Jesus occurred. Brooks wrote:  “I stood close to the spot where Jesus was born.  The whole Church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”

If life allows it, how wonderful it would be to spend Christmas in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity! Here’s the truth of the Advent journey: every Advent we are invited to go to Bethlehem. It is the culmination of our spiritual pilgrimage every Advent. 

I contend that we need this Advent journey this year as desperately as we have needed it in my lifetime. As I write this, 300,000 persons have died from Covid-19. I dare say not one of us is untouched by some friend or family member who has been infected. We know what it is to sing, “where in thy dark streets shineth” and “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” 

The beauty of this simple yet profound hymn is that God comes. God comes to the small, the insignificant. God came at Christmas through the lowly—a baby, a manger, a place called Bethlehem, to Mary and Joseph, shepherds far from the seat of power in Rome. To make this journey is to discover that truth. 

Not only does God come to the small and insignificant, God comes in the silence. The hymn, “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.  No ear can hear his coming.”  It strikes me, when I read the Bible, that the world was created in silence. In the beginning.  In creation…silence. 

When I was a young adult, I did a little duck hunting. I remember going out before daylight in a boat to a duck blind and waiting in silence until the first light of day came through the trees.  I can still hear the sound of ducks landing or taking off, breaking the silence of the morning.  I gladly would go again and sit in the cold just to hear the profound sound of hundreds of ducks landing or taking flight.  

I’m quite sure the first Christmas was not silent. Most certainly the baby Jesus cried. The barnyard animals made their noises. Mary and Joseph, no doubt, discussed this moment. Here’s the truth of it: God makes and remakes a world out of silence and saves it. The final word of truth from the hymn is this: God comes to bring salvation. Brooks penned these powerful words: “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” 

Theologically, Brooks makes a move here few of us do in Advent and Christmas. He links the child to the savior who will cast out our sin.  We are drawn, if we are paying any attention at all this Christmas, to the brokenness of our world.  You know too well the brokenness of our country, the death of thousands, the suffering of many more. People are dying alone.  Socially distanced funerals are the norm. We do not live in peace. Food lines are lengthening while our leaders in Washington debate a relief package for US citizens.  Many have been unemployed for far too long.  Others fear unemployment will soon come. Evictions from homes are dreaded.  How we need the hope and confidence of these words today. 

1. O little town of Bethlehem, 
how still we see thee lie; 
above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
the silent stars go by. 
Yet in thy dark streets shineth 
the everlasting light; 
the hopes and fears of all the years 
are met in thee tonight. 

2. For Christ is born of Mary, 
and gathered all above, 
while mortals sleep, the angels keep 
their watch of wondering love. 
O morning stars together, 
proclaim the holy birth, 
and praises sing to God the king, 
and peace to all on earth! 

3. 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. 

4. O holy Child of Bethlehem, 
descend to us, we pray; 
cast out our sin, and enter in, 
be born in us today. 
We hear the Christmas angels 
the great glad tidings tell; 
o come to us, abide with us, 
our Lord Emmanuel! 

In the spirit of Lectio Divina, I invite you to write down the word or phrase that speaks to you this day. Meditate on that phrase. Write it on your heart. Write as many word associations as you can think of to this phrase. Think deeply about your life. Offer your thoughts as a prayer.  And trust that God will hear and shape your responding in ways you could never imagine.

For me this day, I pray “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” My longings for normalcy in this season are growing stronger every day. Too much of my time is lost in fretting over what I cannot control. So again, this Advent, I invite the Holy child of Bethlehem to come, to abide, to be little, Emmanuel. 

This morning, in Sunday School, we reflected on memorable Christmas Eve Services. From the time I was 13 years old, my church home was First United Methodist Church, New Albany, MS. It remains to this day the place of meeting our Lord.  It is my Bethel.  From 13 until I was 28 years old, we celebrated Christmas Eve in the sanctuary there. In the years beyond college, I was often the liturgist in the service.  Always, Phillip Brooks was with us in spirit as we sang this hymn. 

As you journey to Bethlehem this year, reach back and touch your Bethel. Remember where Jesus entered in and sin no longer had power over you. Pray that God will impart God’s richest blessings on you and your family. 

Until we can be together singing hymns and lifting candles, let God’s presence surround you with great grace and peace and hope. 

Advent Peace,

Bishop McAlilly