December 12, 2022

Christmas and Advent Hymns and their Story

“O Little Town of Bethlehem”

In 1865, Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks [1835-1893] took and extended leave from his congregation in Philadelphia to travel to the Holy Land. On December 24th of that year [a Sunday] Brooks traveled on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The journey made quite an impression on that 30 year old, it seems. His observance of Christmas Eve was completed at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where the service lasted for “a wondrous five hours.”
Three years later he decided to write about his moments in that “Little Town” he had visited and included it in a Children’s Christmas program at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. In the first verse, Brooks seeks to re-create a verbal picture of the night of Jesus’ birth with reflections of the holy birth itself and it’s association with Bethlehem as he though of Micah 5:2; “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.”
In his notes, he frequently writes about Luke 2:1-15. In his original manuscript, the words “EVERLASTING LIGHT” are capitalized. In doing so, he seeks to remind us of light being brought into places of darkness, like Isaiah 60:1-2; “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.”

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.

LSB 361

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