O Little Town of Bethlehem

I love Christmas Carols, singing them and hearing them. Being brought up in The Salvation Army I was playing them on a brass instrument in the streets every Saturday from a young age. There are joyful carols, triumphant carols, sad sounding carols, beautiful soul moving carols and really odd ones where you’re not quite sure what they are on about!

Today I just wanted to share with you why one particular Christmas Carol is on my favourite list.

My dad died two months before my 20th birthday. Many of my memories of him have already faded far more than I would like. But strongly etched into my heart and mind is his sense of humour and fun, his questioning mind and his faith and trust in God.

I remember one Carol service giggling with him about some of the verses in different carols. We decided that Once in Royal David’s City was a propaganda song designed to make children behave! We also puzzled over the words of O Little Town of Bethlehem and how daft some of them seemed…

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.

Bethlehem was apparently so packed with people that Mary and Joseph couldn’t find anywhere other than a cattle shed to sleep for the night. It doesn’t seem too likely that it would be lying that still and sleeping deeply. The town would have been full of hustle and bustle. And as a kid the concept of the stars moving across the sky seemed like it was out of Fantasia or another Disney offering.

O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to all the earth;
For Christ is born of Mary;
And, gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wond’ring love.

This all seems fairly sensible…

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.

But at this verse Phillips Brooke’s seems to have lost all his senses…. He clearly had never been present or in close vicinity of a birth if he thinks that Jesus arrived silently. I’m sorry, but as amazing as Mary was in her faith of what God could accomplish in and through her, I struggle to accept that she didn’t make a single peep through all her contractions, that at that moment of birth as she felt like her body was going to rip apart she didn’t make a sound. We’re also meant to believe that baby Jesus didn’t cry at all? Yes he was divine, but he was fully human and I suspect that he knew he had to make himself heard when he was hungry, cold, wanted a cuddle or dare we actually mention it… pooed in his swaddling clothes.

But over the years I have become very fond of this Carol and not just because of nostalgic memories of giggling with my dad.

When I worked weekend nights for the Ambulance Service the 999 calls would flood in through the evening and still be going strong at 2, even 3 in the morning. A busy control room is a fairly noisy place, people taking calls, speaking to ambulance crews, liaising with hospitals and other emergency services, negotiating with each other over limited resources as well as various dispatch alarms and radio calls demanding attention. As shift manager you’re trying to keep an ear and eye on all that is happening. But generally by 3.30am things would start to quieten down and for about 90 minutes or so there would be some respite. The team could take it in turns to step outside and get a breath of fresh air. You’re aware that most of the world around you is in fast asleep. It won’t be long before the sky starts to lighten and the birds begin to sing but in that moment there’s a stillness, a space to take a breath.

It’s that sort of moment that I can now imagine in the first verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem. However busy that town would have been, however late the visitors stayed up drinking and chatting and sharing stories there would have come a moment, somewhere before dawn, when the hubbub would have died down and there would have been a peace and stillness, all the more marked by the contrast of the evening before.

As a grown up I now understand the science of stars seemingly moving across the sky but I’m also struck by the symbolism of those stars. They have been tracking their course across the sky, night after night, for thousands of years and now witness to a cosmic moment where all of humanities hopes and fears would collide at a specific place and time that would change the course of history as a baby was born.

Having given birth to two largish babes, I’m still pretty unconvinced by the notion that Jesus arrived on this planet in such a manner that no one could hear his arrival. However I remember so very clearly those early moments; the noise and adrenaline of the birth is over, little one has fed and fallen asleep. There is such a precious peace, filled with immense wonder that this perfect little being is here. It is this moment I now call to mind when we sing, ‘How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.’

God seems to have a habit of defying expectations, delivering his love and generosity in surprising and unexpected ways. He became Emmanuel – ‘God with Us’ – in a ridiculously understated way; hthe arrival of another baby into the world, something that happens many many times every day. And yet that birth and the implications it has for all of humanity has been told in paintings, stories, plays and songs for hundreds of years inspiring wonder and hope, tears and laughter.

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.

Every year as we sing carols such as O Little Town of Bethlehem we’re invited to enter into and become part of that eternal story. We’re invited to to lay bare all our hopes and fears and receive the blessings of heaven into our hearts; we’re invited to receive the opportunity to be cleansed of the wrong in our past and to sing with the angels with joy from the bottom of our hearts as we embrace the truth that a precious baby came to turn our world upside down.

Jesus – Emmanuel – God With Us.

2 thoughts on “O Little Town of Bethlehem

  1. Absolutely beautiful as always, Katie and I don’t want to spoil it at all…. but your dad’s view of the silent stars going by was that the author was on drugs. John LOVED Christmas – even though most years we were working with Katie, Emma, Mum and Nan tagging along.


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