Twelve Songs of Christmas #8
O Little Town of Bethlehem
O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by Phillips Brooks, who was the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia.
Brooks had a heavy ministry. He was pastor during the Civil War, and people continually were killed in the war. All of Brooks' congregants knew people who were killed, and all were feeling the weight of the war as they entered the church each Sunday.
After the war, another weight was on the nation, as Lincoln was assassinated.
Brooks was asked to give the funeral message for Lincoln.
Shortly after, Brooks took a sabbatical to go to the Holy Land. He needed some respite from the weight of his ministry. While there, he borrowed a horse and rode on horseback on Dec. 24 toward Bethlehem. While in Bethlehem, he considered the birth of King born in such small surroundings. This was a powerful moment for Brooks.
He said that the "experience was so overpowering it would forever be singing in my soul."
When he came back, he found that he couldn't adequately communicate this experience to his church from the pulpit.
Brooks wrote a poem, still trying to communicate his experience from Bethlehem.
His organist Lewis Redner tried to put this poem to a melody to communicate the experience in song.
O Little Town of Bethlehem has since become one of the most popular Christmas carols.
O Little Town of Bethlehem is a song depicting the birth of the Christ; specifically noting the quietness surrounding the birth. While the incredible moment when God took on human flesh was occurring, people were asleep. This miraculous event happened in a quiet, out-of-the-way town.
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!
Despite the silence of the night, the heavenly beings look upon this moment.
O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the king and peace to men on earth, For Christ is born of Mary
And, gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
In verses 3 and 4, Brooks connects the silence of the birth to the fact that God cannot be heard by human ears. Yet, in spite of the perceived silence of God, he is present and will enter into the hearts of those who call.
How silently, how silently the wonderous 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.
Where Children pure and happy pray to the blessed child; where misery cries out to thee, son of the mother mild; where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door, the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
The song closes with a prayer that God will enter in to our hearts.
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!
The New Oxford Book of Carols
Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas