I’m a church choir director, so Christmas inevitably begins in August for me. This year one piece is giving us fits, a new setting of Anglican priest (and later bishop), Phillips Brooks,’ “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It’s not dissonant and doesn’t appear difficult at all, but no musical material ever recurs. The similar harmonic treatment from verse to verse gives the illusion of a constant melody, though no actual repeating “tune” ever emerges. The effect is glorious, but it doesn’t make the singers’ lives easy. So in trying to help them to get a handle on this brand new music, I’ve tried to dig deeper into the familiar words. Here’s what I find, a very Benedictine essay on radical interior transformation.
Overall, the constant theme is the invasion of the interior life by the historical event of Jesus’ birth in the world–our transformation into a new Bethlehem.
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
In the first verse we hear the Reverend Brooks remind us of Christmas history with one hint at something bigger: “…yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” I automatically think of the Star in the East, but an astronomical display doesn’t and didn’t last forever. Check Revelation 21:22-23 here. This little baby, born just like all babies, is the eternal light of the eternal realm.
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 men on earth
In verse two we focus on angels, and we can spend the rest of our lives figuring out angels. But, once again the third line lands a zinger, “O Morning Stars together proclaim the holy birth.” Remember Job 38:7, “When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” at the laying of the cornerstone of creation. Once again, the historical bodes eternal.
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
Vs. 3 notes the silence of God’s giving–shades of Elijah’s encounter with the power of a still, small voice in I Kings 19:11-12. Then “…God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” The invasion begins: the kingdom within all of a sudden becomes not only possible, but normative–Luke 17:21, Revelation 21:3. But will “meek souls receive him…?” The Roman liturgy paraphrases Matthew 8:8 as the people say, just before receiving the Body and Blood, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Revelation 3:20 reminds us of Christ’s persistent knocking… John Donne pleaded for something more irresistible: “Batter my hear Three-personed God, for Thou as yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend.” Something in each of us prefers a two by four two a tap on the shoulder.
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
The last verse continues to insist on God’s desire to apply the historical model to the interior life: “be born in us…O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel,” (God with us.) Luke 17:21 and Revelation 21:3 insist that the human heart is God’s final and eternal home. Whatever else there may be, there is the coming of Christ here and now, HERE and NOW.
What an incredible wonder to sing. Let’s do it.
Thanks Ric for this thoughtful reflection. I especially liked your conclusion and it leave me wondering, wondering about God coming into our lives.
Good luck on the rehersals! It would be good to hear your choir’s performance of this beloved Christmas carol.