O Little Town of 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.

Introduction

We often think of hymns and nursery rhymes as two distinct categories of music, and for the most part, that differentiation holds. However, many hymns originally did have an intended audience of children and young people, with the goal of capturing everyone’s imagination. Such is the case with O Little Town of Bethlehem.

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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

History of the Hymn

According to British hymnologist J. R. Watson, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote this beloved Christmas hymn for the Sunday school children at his Philadelphia parish, Holy Trinity Church. Inspired, and overwhelmed, by a recent pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1865, Brooks composed the lyrics for the song three years later. The hymn was printed on an informal leaflet in December 1868 and then appeared in The Sunday School Hymnal in 1871, accompanied by the music entitled ‘St. Louis’ of Lewis Redner (1931-1908), a wealthy real estate broker who served as church organist for his avocation.

Notably, as UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young writes, Redner “increased Sunday school attendance at Holy Trinity Episcopal, where Phillips Brooks was rector, from thirty-six to over one thousand during his nineteen years as superintendent.”

A Pilgrimage

According to the story, Philip Brooks traveled on horseback between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. He journaled about the experience:

“Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.”

Brooks participated in the Christmas Eve service conducted in Constantine’s ancient basilica (326 A.D.) built over the traditional site of the Nativity, a cave. The service lasted from 10 PM until 3 AM in the morning. This sequence of events provided the backdrop for Brooks’ children’s hymn.

A Hymn for Children

We know that the hymn is for children especially from the now omitted initial fourth stanza:

Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the undefiled;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.

America to Europe

O Little Town of Bethlehem is the second hymn composed by an American that we have covered in this series. It also happens to possess a unique perspective on the Christmas narrative, primarily describing and reflecting on the town of Bethlehem itself rather than the angels, shepherds, wise men, or future implications of the Incarnation. The carol appreciates the present moment of that night, placing us in that time and moment.

Eventually, the Christmas hymn would traverse the Atlantic to Great Britain, where a change in music made it more palatable to English ears. The words retained their poignancy, drawing children and young people, and adults, deeper into the beautiful tradition and magnificent theology of Christmas carols.

image for little town of bethlehem

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.

Musicality of the Hymn

I love the tune for O Little Town of Bethlehem; it is simple and slow but powerful and moving. Lewis Redner, reflecting upon the hymn, wrote that the “simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure almost on the Eve of Christmas. It was after midnight that a little angel whispered the strain in my ears and I roused myself and jotted it down as you have it.”

Tune

In Great Britain, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) paired the text of O Little Town of Bethlehem with the British folk tune ‘Forest Green’ for The English Hymnal (1906), a marriage Australian hymnologist Wesley Milgate called “one of the many happy inspirations of the music editor, Vaughan Williams.” This tune is dominant in Great Britain. British hymnologist Erik Routley actually derided the American tune as “broken-backed and paralytic.” Such is the difference in musical tastes of two countries an ocean apart.

Nevertheless, people on both sides of the Atlantic agree on the poignancy of the text. Not only does the hymn beautifully describe the little Israeli town asleep in the December night, but it also gracefully modulates from a description of Christmas into an examination of the meaning of Christmas: first in its encouragement of charity and faith, and then the coming of Christ into the human heart.

The Immaculate Conception Controversy

Redner felt that a line from the fourth stanza—“Son of the undefiled”—led to some amusing criticism lest it should smack of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church in regards to Mary, Jesus’ mother. The official statement of the doctrine reads,

“The Blessed Virgin Mary to have been, from the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Savior of Mankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin.”

Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 1854

Essentially, the Immaculate Conception is the belief that Mary was protected from original sin, that she did not have a sin nature and was, in fact, sinless. In truth, Mary was the same as any other human being: born broken and in need of a Savior.

Lyric Changes

To dispel any misunderstanding, Brooks changed the line to ‘Son of the Mother mild,’ but he afterward decided to omit the verse altogether from the carol. Personally, until researching for this post, I had no idea that such a stanza existed. Having read the carol in its entirety, though, I do wish Brooks had kept the verse intact.

Regardless of feelings about the tune and lyrics, O Little Town of Bethlehem is still beautiful, imaginative, and emotionally expressive.

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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

Theology of the Hymn

Since O Little Town of Bethlehem is about Bethlehem, it is fitting that we take a look at what Scripture says regarding the Israeli village.

Matthew’s account of the Christmas narrative informs us that the Magi, following a brilliant star in the heavens, traveled from the east to Jerusalem, just north of Bethlehem, where they asked Herod if he knew the location of the “king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). When Herod, who fancied himself “king of the Jews,” maliciously inquired where “the Christ was to be born,” the wise men replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea” (2:4-5).

A Contradiction?

In support of their answer, the Magi reference Micah 5:2-4, incorporating language from 2 Samuel 5:2:

And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
For from you shall come a ruler
Who will shepherd my people Israel’ (Matt. 2:6)

At first glance, the second line seems to misinterpret Micah 5:2. The original verse reads:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel…

According to the wise men, the indication appears to be that Bethlehem is “by no means” insignificant; in Micah, the idea is that Bethlehem is indeed insignificant. Indeed, the Hebrew word translated as “little” or “small” not only means “small in size,” but also “insignificant.” Phillips Brooks forever enshrines the diminutive size of the village in the opening of his beloved carol: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”

Back to the apparent contradiction. After much debate, biblical scholars propose the following solution: there is a “formal contradiction” between Matthew and Micah, yet the sense of both passages is identical. Namely, the most significant figure of all–the Messiah–would come from the most insignificant of places–the small town of Bethlehem.

Insignificance is Significant to God

We find the principle that God uses the insignificant in man’s eyes to accomplish his own great purposes expressly stated by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29.

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

This theme weaves its way through the pages of Scripture. Think of God’s selection of the Israelites to be his people, about which Moses wrote,

‘The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples’ (Deut. 7:7).

Remember King David, also born in Bethlehem. He was once so seemingly insignificant that his father Jesse didn’t even think to present him before Samuel when the prophet sought Israel’s future king (1 Sam. 16).

The last phrase of 1 Corinthians 1:29 highlights the reason God works in such a fashion: he does it so that “no one may boast before him” – so that no one may say “I did it – look at me!” but must concede, “God has done it – look to Him!” Instead, we stand in awe of the Creator and Master of the universe, who brings beauty from suffering, light from darkness, and life from the depths of Sheol.  

Smallness and Greatness

The contrast between Bethlehem’s smallness and the Messiah’s greatness reveals the unexpected and upside-down nature of God’s saving work. When the Lord comes to deliver his people,

“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Is. 40:4-5).

The Glory of God entered human life, not in a palace but in a stable; in weakness and vulnerability, not strength and safety; in little Bethlehem, not mighty Jerusalem; not as a powerful Superman, but as a helpless child. God the Son, the One by and for whom all things were made, humbled Himself, taking on human flesh, being born as a small baby, placed in a feeding trough for animals.

Gift of God

Thus, while a village–and the world–lies slumbering,

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.

While humanity sleeps, unaware that the Savior has arrived, the heavenly hosts and all creation ring with praise and joy,

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!

Yes, the miracle of the Incarnation, the astounding beauty of God’s plan, the mystery of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection–Brooks captures all in O Little Town of Bethlehem.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Humiliation Becomes Exaltation

In God’s economy, the humiliation Christ faced while on earth was no failure, but an achievement of incalculable significance. At Calvary, Jesus paid the price for sin that only God could pay–an infinite price that no finite creature could afford. His payment is sufficient, confirmed in the Resurrection.

The cross leaves no room for boasting. Of their salvation, no human can boast in himself, declaring, “I did it – look at me!” Instead, at the cross, we see both what we deserve: infinite judgment. And, if a child of God, we see what we have gained: an unmerited gift of infinite mercy.

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Concluding Thoughts

Thus we discover the true significance of Bethlehem: it is nothing without Christ. And so it is with us. For most people, life often adds up to one feat after another in an ongoing quest for purpose and meaning, whether through materialism, hedonism, scientism, religions, or so forth. The message of Bethlehem is the message of the cross: stop trying to make much of one’s self and start making much of God. In the end, our influence, impact, and purpose lie not in our own achievements but measured by our own achievements, but in being God’s chosen and adopted child.

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!

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