December 3, 2023
The Carols of Christmas: O Little Town of Bethlehem
During these Sundays of Advent, I thought I’d take a look with you at some of our favorite old Christmas Carols. In the words we sing year after year, in the lives of those who wrote them, and in the stories of their creation, might there be some fresh word, some resurrected hope for those of us who once again drag the dusty decorations from the attic in search of Christmas? There are indeed. And I am confident that, in these weeks, we will find inspiration enough to light our way to Bethlehem.
We begin with Phillips Brooks, one of the greatest preachers of the nineteenth century. Phillips Brooks was noted for his spirited defense of the doctrine of the trinity at a time when Unitarianism was gaining strength in his home town of Boston. Now, I must confess that, although I rarely acknowledge it, there is a certain strain running through my own old Baptist soul that is, if not Unitarian, certainly Universalist). So it’s a bit out of character to be lifting up as an exemplar a man who took on the Unitarians with the zeal of a prize fighter.
But Brooks was no Johnny One-note. He was a complex mixture of passionate single-mindedness, and broadly appealing open-mindedness. He was not one to avoid conflict, but he was always ready to understand and relate to people of all perspectives and origins.
A case in point: At the age of 20, after graduating from Harvard University in 1855, during the growing division between the North and South, he headed right into the heart of the conflict. He went off to Virginia Theological School. Here was a fine young Brahmin Bostonian who was outspoken in opposition to slavery going to a sharply divided state where the slave trade was an economic main-stay, and to a city, Alexandria, that would (only 6 years later) vote by a margin of 20 to 1 in favor of secession from the Union and be immediately occupied by federal troops.
Now it may be that his courage was born of the fact that he stood six feet four inches tall and weighed in at nearly 300 pounds, but I think it also had to do with his basic nature. Although he despised slavery, he never despised Southerners. He was always glowing with optimism and ready to give anyone a fair hearing.
Among all the things he came to love about ministry, perhaps the greatest love was of the children. That affection is reflected in a letter he sent back to his parish in 1865. He had become pastor of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia and, after only three years there, was off on a year long trip, primarily to the Holy Land. On December 24th of that year, he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and on Christmas Eve night found himself in a field where, legend has it, the angels appeared to the shepherds. He went from there to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He was so moved by the experience that he sent a letter home to the Sunday School children in his church, telling them that listening to the hymns on that night in the Church of the Nativity it seemed as if he were hearing them sung by all those Sunday School kids back home. It made him realize how much he missed them.
He traveled to England, Asia, India, and Japan. And through it all he seemed to develop a deep appreciation for people of other lands, other faiths, and other backgrounds. His sensitivity and compassion became renowned.
Well, what has all this got to do with our Christmas Carol? Here’s the story: Two years after that Christmas Eve night in Bethlehem, Brooks wanted a song for the Sunday School children to sing in their Christmas program. He reflected on that magical night with the stars in the field and the hymns in his ears, and wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” His church organist, Lewis Redner came up with the tune, and the kids all sang it at the service.
But, here’s a part of the story that you may not know: the original song had five verses, not the four that we’re used to. There was an original third verse that was never published. It goes like this:
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.
I’m not sure why that verse was lost to us, but I think it’s too bad. Because it reflects perhaps better than any of the other verses the thing that most strikes me about Phillips Brooks. It’s that last part that gets to me. The dark night doesn’t break and Christmas doesn’t come until faith holds wide the door where charity stands watching.
Having just lived through one of the bloodiest wars of all time, when the nation was aching from the assassination of its President, exhausted from its hatreds, and unable to find much light anywhere in that darkness, Brooks could tell his Sunday School children that the secret to finding Christmas was in the vigilance of charity and the courage to open doors to others.
This dark world we live in today could use a few hands holding doors open. And maybe those doors don’t get opened unless charity is vigilant at the doorposts.
The Little Town of Bethlehem lies, today, in the heart of this earth’s darkness. Israelis and Palestinians rage and war against one another in a swirling frenzy all around the little town. The streets of Bethlehem are dark indeed. When Hamas makes a bloodthirsty raid and calls for the destruction of Israel to the cheers of some Palestinians, the streets of Bethlehem grow darker. When Israeli rockets and raids kill innocent Palestinian men, women, and children, the streets of Bethlehem grow darker. When Russia undergoes a fool-hardy and blundering war in Ukraine, the streets of Bethlehem grow darker. Yet, as long as there are those who will follow the example of the Babe of Bethlehem and find the courage to open doors and stand guard at them with compassion, then in those dark streets will still shine an everlasting light, and in those same dark streets the hopes and fears of all the years are met.
Phillips Brooks ended his career back in Boston. He was rector of Trinity Church (his statue stands today outside that church). But for all of his accomplishments, his honors, and his great preaching – preaching once even to the Queen of England at the Royal Chapel at Windsor – perhaps his greatest legacy is to the children – those children in his Sunday School, and children of every generation to follow. After all, you and I learned at an early age that no matter how dark the night gets, there is an everlasting light that shines even in darkened streets, and we know that there is a place where charity guards the door, and it is held open to all by faith.
The greatest epitaph left to Phillips Brooks are the words of one of those children. Brooks died on January 23, 1893, and, so the story goes, a five year old girl was upset because she hadn’t seen her preacher friend for several days. Her mother told her that Mr. Brooks had gone to heaven, and the child was reported to have said, “Oh, Mama, how happy the angels will be.”
And now, in the hope that singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” you will breathe a silent prayer for open doors and vigilant compassion, I leave you with the words of Phillips Brooks, “Charity should begin at home, but should not stay there.”
Instead of the words in the hymnal, let’s sing together all five verses as you find them on your bulletin insert.