Traditional Christmas carols have several advantages going for them that popular and trendy worship songs don't. For starters, because American society is largely influenced by Christianity, people usually are familiar with Christmas carols even if they grew up outside the church. They probably recognize with the tunes, and if they have the lyrics in front of them, they almost certainly can sing along with confidence from the start.
Secondly, unlike many contemporary songs which deal strictly with a reductionist gospel of loving God and receiving forgiveness of sins, most Christmas carols are heavy lifters when it comes to doctrine. They'll carry their own weight in every verse, if not on every line.
Carols like “The First Noël” retell the story of the first Christmas around the supporting cast of shepherds and magi, while “O Come All Ye Faithful” teaches good doctrine on the hypostatic union. “We Three Kings” explores the coming life of Christ down to his death and Resurrection, and “O Holy Night” reflects the gospel call for social justice.
And then there's “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a four-verse meditation on the Nativity itself.
Written in 1868 by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest from the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia who had visited the Holy Land three years earlier, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a song people know of but don't know. Without the lyrics in front of them, most people can sing the first line with great enthusiasm before trailing off into “Da dee da dee dee dum” on Line 2.
If you sang “O Little Town” in church as a child, you probably sang it accompanied by a battered and tuneless organ. When you finished singing, you may even have looked at the carol itself with a measure of pity for all the trauma it had just suffered. Many songs suffer horribly during congregational worship in church, especially when they're sung without enthusiasm and played on an organ.
If your church still uses hymnals you're more likely to find “O Little Town of Bethlehem” than a carol like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” but there are no guarantees you'll sing it during Advent, on Christmas or during the days leading to Epiphany. It's more of a bench-warmer than a Christmas titan like “Silent Night.”
That's a shame, because this song has what it takes to be a winner. The melody fits comfortably within a one-octave range, and proceeds at a steady, easily managed pace. The carol is lyrically unassuming as well, starting out like the opening montage of a Hollywood movie before delving into its deeper themes.
The first verse of “O Little Town” begins with the camera tracking slowly across a field of stars against the cold night sky before it drops down toward Bethlehem. It's a small town, scarcely more than a village. Many of the houses are hovels, owned by working-class families, although a few are bigger. Winding through the village are roads made of dirt and frozen mud, beaten paths made by the steady footsteps of people and their livestock over the years.
It's night, so as the camera pans through town we see the darkened windows of the houses. The only light comes from the stars and moon above, except for one mysterous source. As our field of vision steadily shifts leftward we perceive an unearthly light, small but steady, coming from the edge of town.
The second verse takes us to a closeup of the manger. Mary is lying on a pile of straw. Her face and her entire body are streaked with dust and dirt, and she is leaden with exhaustion. It's more than 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and if it weren't for that Roman census, she and her husband wouldn't have made the trip. It's too much to manage when you're nine months pregnant, but it did have one benefit. All that travel made labor a lot faster than it would have been otherwise.
The scene in the manger is perfectly idyllic, the proverbial calm after the storm. A moment ago Jesus was screaming fit to raise the dead, but he has finally settled down. Right now he's nestled in the crook of Mary's arm, latched onto her breast and lazily drinking colostrum as his eyes close and his tiny body unclenches.
In a moment Jesus will fall asleep and then Mary will too, but that won't last long. He's going to wake up a lot the next few nights, and aggravate his parents to no end. That's how it works when you have an infant.
Now the camera pulls back from the manger scene, and pans up toward the heavens again. It's quiet in town. Aside from Joseph, who is trying to decide if he puts too much stock in his dreams, pretty much everyone in Bethlehem is asleep right now.
That’s a shame because the people in the town are missing quite a show. The gates of heaven are open wide, and the angelic host is looking in amazement at the scene below them. While the stars themselves announce the birth of Jesus to anyone who is watching, the angels are lost in worship to the God who is at once too vast to comprehend and yet so tiny and vulnerable that it beggars description.
As rare as it is that we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” it's rarer still we sing the third and fourth verses. That's our loss. The third verse contemplates the unassuming gospel, which by its nature comes silently and without fanfare or acclaim to the meek; rather than with the might and bluster we ourselves often rely on to advance it.
The fourth verse moves to entreaty, asking for our own transformation. Two things I find compelling about this verse: Rather than focusing on the crucified Christ we focus on so much, it welcomes the infant Christ into our lives, and it does so with the title Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Why is this important? I can't speak for others, but too often I take the adult Man of Sorrows for granted. I pause, consider his death for my sins, breathe a quick prayer of contrition and ask for forgiveness, and then I move on, my life largely unchanged. You can't do that with a child.
I became a father 17 years ago. I can think of nothing that upended my life more than the arrival of my daughter on that October afternoon. My wife and I had altered our lives to accommodate one another, but either one of us could and often did manage just fine without the other around when it came to day-to-day living.
I went to work in the morning and came home in the evening, just as I had done before we got married. My wife did the same with her studies and teaching post at graduate school. The big change in our lifestyle after our wedding was that now, when we returned to the apartment for the evening, somebody else would be there. That was it.
Not so when Oldest Daughter arrived on the scene. She required our presence in her life constantly for food, for comfort, for cleaning and for education. If she was hungry, we had to drop everything and feed her. If she was upset, we did our best to comfort her immediately. As soon as she started babbling, we started babbling back to encourage her to speak. Even a trip to the supermarket or to a friend's house was altered fundamentally by her presence. She didn't run the house, but her well-being became our highest priority, even above our own. If she couldn't sleep because of an ear infection, we didn't either.
It's been 17 years now and Oldest Daughter has learned remarkably well to stand on her own two feet. She gets herself food, works her own job, and pursues her own learning at high school and at home. For all that, our lives remain ordered around her needs, her goals and her for her own sake, because we love her. The same is true for her sisters.
In that sacrificial and occasionally selfless devotion to her life and well-being, I see a shadow of the life-upending transformation that Christ can bring when the unassuming infant from the manger arrives in our midst and compels us to place someone else truly first.
That's not just singing a song. That's worship.
Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.
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O Little Town of Bethlehem
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 men 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 to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.