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.
A classic Christmas carol, this hymn is far from a mere children’s song. Written in the years following the American Civil War in Philadelphia, the lyrics address important aspects of the birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke before turning to the meaning of Christmas for future generations.
While both accounts mention Bethlehem, it is Matthew that emphasizes the prophecy that from David’s city would rise the One who would “shepherd my people Israel.” After the first verse has set the scene, the second verse continues on in the story in Luke’s telling, with the young Mary, holding her child, and the angels singing tidings of comfort and joy to the world. It is in the verses that follow, however, that the song shifts to the true meaning of the birth narratives we celebrate.
The author draws us into this scene and then notes that it is not with a trumpet blast that this miracle occurs – but in still, small, overwhelming silence. God’s gift of heaven to us, the children of God living on earth, is one that the world will not immediately recognize, but will be apparent to those who are truly looking.
And finally, we come to the final verse. Our congregation uses this fourth verse as a response throughout the whole of Advent and Christmastide, because it captures the true meaning of the season. More than that, it reminds us that though we begin this journey at Bethlehem, there is still work that needs done in our world and we will need God’s help to do it. So may this be our prayer this day: 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!
Reverse Advent Calendar: Consider making Christmas cards for prisoners in your local prison. Remember that Jesus told us to visit those in prison. So what better time of year than to offer words of comfort and love. It is not ours to decide who is worthy; it is simply our job to push the message forward.