Advent, Week Three: O, Little Town of Bethlehem

Haha, it’s still technically Friday, so I’m technically not off-schedule with this.  (Mercy, Reader; we just finished finals week at the University of Pilgrim Land, and I am flat spent.)

I’ll admit, O, Little Town of Bethlehem is not one of my favorite carols of the season.  I truly can’t tell you why; I think it’s that I remember singing it as a kid (and it was, after all, written for children to sing) and associate it wholly with children’s choirs (a sound I really dislike, and you can call me heartless for it all you wish).  I think I also just don’t jive with the somewhat plodding feeling the melody can have (at least, here in America.  It’s a different tune in Britain, which is more than a little weird).  And I’m not the only one who gives it short shrift; it’s often paired with another Christmas piece rather than standing on its own.

So I took myself off to the lyrics, as is the best thing to do with carols, and it had the same effect it usually does:  namely, of quite rightly setting me back on my Grinch-y heels.  It consistently amazes me how deep a lot of the old carols go; where we of modern praise music are so concerned about telling God that we love Him and He’s great and we trust that faith will make whatever work, these carols recognize there is darkness, fear, and sin.  I don’t think this is technically an Advent hymn because Christ is born in it, but it is absolutely an Advent hymn in its sense of breathless, hushed expectation.  “How still we see thee lie,” Bethlehem, unremarkable town of ancient fame that is about to get even more connected to historical importance.  How small this town, this strange place over which silent stars wheel in their dance that recognizes nothing at all about this town but everything about this Child.

There’s a sense of wonder in this song, a marvelousness of how incredible it is that God became human.  The blogger Kate Hurley said it fantastically in a recent post:

What is even crazier is that the God who not only lives in the cosmos but CREATED them, the God that can’t be contained by eternity, that very God came down and became a tiny baby.

So we can hold him close to our heart.

Can you imagine how confined, uncomfortable, helpless, that might have felt? But he did it. He did it because he wants to be close to us.

What an amazing thing, that God should care that much.  In this God shining in the dark streets, in this God entering in to a broken world, the hopes and fears of all the years reside—the hopes and fears of everyone else in Bethlehem who didn’t make it into Luke’s narrative, the hopes and fears of the medieval mothers and fathers handing their children to a Church offering to be parent, the hopes and fears of my Advent, of Hopeful’s, of yours, of your children’s children’s children’s.  This carol has a heck of a lot of faith, actually:  no matter how screwed up the world is, if you open your soul to Christ, He will enter.  No matter how dark the night, the dawn will break.  No matter how miserable the situation, charity and faith abide, flinging wide the door to this most spectacular Christmas gift.

I don’t know about you, Reader, but I really appreciate that reminder.  My Advent has been exhausting so far—not bad, necessarily, just utterly draining on a spiritual, emotional, and mental level.  I would like to believe that angels are keeping watch in “wondering love” over we poor, misguided mortals.  I like the idea that faith “holds wide the door” wherein “glory breaks.”  I want to know that Christ’s ear hears “when misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild,” because there is much misery.  There is deceit, and treachery, and sorrow, and pain, and uncertainty, and injustice, and shame, and subjugation, and brokenness, and I want both Bethlehem and my little town and all the many, many towns in between to have this reassurance that God is making this personal.  It’s not about saying that the darkness does not exist or that Christ being born fixed everything instantaneously.  But it is about saying that even in that, glory, there is a God Who comes among us to live in those places, to begin the process of fixing things, to take the first step so that we are able to take a second.

O, little town of Bethlehem, what news!  What hope!  What promise!  “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!”



But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.  (Micah 5:2, KJV)

3 thoughts on “Advent, Week Three: O, Little Town of Bethlehem

  1. Nice to read something about my guy Phillips Brooks! He was quite a sensation during his day. Helen Keller, Conrad Hilton, and Dr. Harvey Cushing were just three well-known people who were inspired by him. When I was in Boston several years ago, I stopped in at Trinity Church, where he was rector, and just sat in one of the pews trying to imagine what it was like to hear him preach. They also have a statue of him in the courtyard outside.

    Every Christmas, when I hear this hymn, I think of him and guess that probably no one in the congregation realizes who wrote the lyrics. But I do, and I remember all the lives he touched as a pastor and bishop. And it’s nice to know that his light still shines through this hymn, even if people don’t remember who he is..


    • It’s one of the many things I like about doing these miniseries on carols: that I get to learn about who wrote them and why. So many of them are so ingrained in us that we—I—don’t really consider them having been written at some point, that somebody sat down and had this idea. Yet someone did, and often it was someone with a pretty amazing story of getting to this place of writing about God.

      Very cool that he’s your guy. Glad I learned about him!


  2. Sheila Bigelow says:

    Okay, you can use this as one of your Christmas sermons.  Beautiful.  On an interesting note, we went to a Joel Mabus concert at Westminster Presbyterian last Sunday night.  He commented that you could set these words to almost any music (well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but . . .) and proceeded to do it.  This is one time I’m sorry I didn’t take notes, so I could tell you what he used.  It was very interesting.   Nice job.  Again.

    Liked by 1 person

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