Christmas certainly reminds us that great gifts can come in small packages. In fact, as a frequent traveler, nearly all my favorite gifts come in very small packages.
The greatest gift this world ever received was packaged in the form of a newborn baby when “God gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). C.S. Lewis delivered one of my all-time favorite quotes from his novel The Last Battle when the character of Lucy exclaimed, “Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.”
Have you ever noticed how God delights in the unknown, the small, the discounted, the foolish, the unwise, the rejected things of this world to display His glory? “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.” (I Corinthians 1:28-29)
A young girl. A carpenter. The least among locations. Not just Bethlehem. Bethlehem, Ephratha (Micah 5:2). A baby in a feeding trough. A cruel cross. Such is the message of the Gospel. It’s truly “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Corinthians 1:18)
Such is the journey of this carol.
What is seemingly more simple than a Sunday School Christmas program at a local church? It is from here this song was birthed.
I’m sure if we all took time to recount one hilarious moment from a church Christmas program, it would, indeed, fill the comments of this blog. Perhaps a child playing a sheep and deviating from merely baaaaahing, an emotional breakdown, or one youngster capitalizing on having to the stage to take the Christmas story in another direction. These times are a precious occasion of the Christmas season to reflect and celebrate, but typically, not seen as the birthplace of the church’s landmark hymns.
Three years before, Phillips Brooks, a young Puritan minister, needing a break from a war-torn United States (end of the Civil War) took a trip to the Holy Land. Thanks to a letter written to his father, we know Brooks, on Christmas Eve, took a horseback ride the some five miles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He attended a five-hour (10 p.m. to 3 a.m.) service that night at the Church of the Nativity and took a ride to the fields outside Bethlehem where he witnessed shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.”
In the darkness of that night, the words began to come together, “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.”
Three years later in 1868, at the age of 33, Phillips contacted his friend, the church organist and superintendent of the Sunday School asking for music to be put to his “simple little carol” (Brook’s words).
From Redner’s perspective, he wrote, “The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?’ I replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”
My friends, as you go through the moments of this season and this day, recognize it might be the seemingly insignificant moments that change a life. Don’t minimize in your life what God wants to utilize for His glory. The the simplest word of encouragement, a thankful attitude, a small act of generosity. Let Christmas remind you that God once used that “Little Town of Bethlehem” to show His glory to the world. Truly, “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.”
May it be said of OUR LIFE, “yet in thy dark streets [your life] shineth, the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”