O Little Town of Bethlehem

O Little Town of Bethlehem

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,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
– Micah 5:2

Phillips Brooks was born in Boston in 1835. On his father’s side, he was descended from John Cotton, the great 17thcentury Puritan minister. Whether that influenced his path or not, after graduating first from Harvard and then from the Virginia Theological Seminary, Brooks ended up becoming an outstanding preacher in his own right.

He first served at Episcopal churches in Philadelphia for a decade before returning to Boston in 1869. He spent the bulk of his career there as rector of Trinity Church, until his appointment as Bishop of Massachusetts in 1891. Trinity burned in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, and Brooks oversaw construction of the building that is still in use today, which has been named a National Historic Landmark as well as one of the “Ten Most Significant Buildings in the United States” by the American Institute of Architects. A statue of Brooks is located on the left exterior of the church, and he has been memorialized in the calendar of the Episcopal Church with a feast day on January 23, the day of his untimely death in 1893 at only 57 years old.

In his day, Brooks was often referred to as the “Prince of the Pulpit.” He cut an imposing figure, standing 6’6” and possessing a powerful voice. It is said that he delivered his sermons at the rate of 250 words per minute. For comparison, your average conversation takes place at about 120 or so words per minute. Most radio broadcasters or people making a presentation speak at a rate of 150-160 words per minute. His estimated rate of delivery puts him in the territory of auctioneers, so I am somewhat skeptical of the claim.

But however he spoke, the effect was potent.  His sermons and writings touched people like few in his day. His well-known contemporary, the philosopher and psychologist William James,  was once asked to define spirituality; after hesitating a moment, he responded, “I don’t know that I can put into words exactly what spirituality is, but I can show it to you in a person: Phillips Brooks.” He was so highly regarded among such a broad swath of people that, as one account of his death put it, “They buried him like a king. Harvard students carried his body on their shoulders. All barriers of denomination were down. Roman Catholics and Unitarians felt that a great man had fallen in Israel.”

Today, Brooks is probably best known as the author of the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. He had visited the Holy Land in 1865. Spending Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and worshipping in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally said to be built on the place of Jesus’ birth, made a lasting impression upon him. Three years later, searching for a new carol for the children to sing in their Sunday School Christmas program, his memory of the visit inspired him to write the text.

He gave a copy to the Sunday School superintendent—who was also the church organist—Lewis Redner, asking him to compose a simple melody for the children to sing. Redner was a skilled musician but had never composed anything, and he found the task a struggle. On Friday before the song was to be practiced on Sunday, Brooks came round and asked if he had worked it out yet. He replied that he had not, but that it should be done by Sunday.

But on the Saturday night before, Redner’s mind was more preoccupied with his Bible lesson for the next day that the song. He was stuck. As he later told it, he awoke suddenly in the night with the melody in his brain, fully formed, and jotted it down. On Sunday morning before he got to the church, he filled in the harmony.  The hymn was a hit with the children, but neither Brooks nor Redner thought it would last beyond Christmas 1868.

Perhaps the reason it has endured is the glimpse it gives us of the mysterious power of God, inscrutably working in the least-expected ways to accomplish his purpose. While with few exceptions the outside world little-noticed a single baby born in the tiny village of Bethlehem, God was entering that world in a new way, preparing to turn it upside down as the prophets had promised. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. That reminder of God’s ongoing redemptive work, patient, silent in the midst of all the darkness of this world is one we badly need. As the last line of the song prays, O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel! Even so, come, Lord Jesus.


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