“Learn and understand the life of Jesus by walking where he walked. When you have seen where Jesus ministered, you will never read your Bible the same way again!” This is one of the many catchphrases in publicity brochures for Holy Land tour packages.
I personally have not been to the Holy Land, but I am sure those who have been there returned with lasting, if not memorable, experiences of having been to our Lord’s birthplace in Bethlehem, His area of ministry in Galilee, and the place of His death and ultimate victory in Jerusalem.
That was what happened to Philips Brooks (1835-1893), then a rector of Holy Trinity Church, Philadelphia, when he returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1865. On 24 Dec, Christmas Eve, Brooks travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback and wrote in his diary: “Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which strangely enough, they put the shepherds.”1
Later that night, Brooks attended a midnight service in the Church of the Nativity that lasted five hours and left a moving and memorable experience with the young clergyman. But it was not until three years later that the seed planted on that trip would finally bear fruit. Brooks had wanted to have a special carol for the children of his Sunday school to sing. Recalling the peaceful scene out in the open field, Brooks completed the writing of the text in just one evening.2 Brooks had his church organist, Lewis H. Redner, to set it to music, and the children sang it for the first time on 27 Dec 1868.
‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ was set against the sleeping town of Bethlehem (stanza 1) and gave poetical expression to the story of the first Christmas night and the wonder of God’s entry into human life in the child born of Mary (stanza 2).3 But no matter how silently this wondrous gift was given, when “no ear may hear” (stanza 3), Brooks’ prayer was that what began with Christ being born in Bethlehem would end with Christ being born in our hearts (stanza 4). From that time on, this carol has been a favourite with children and adults around the world.
O Little Town of Bethlehem (The United Methodist Hymnal, #230)
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.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!
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.
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!
Words: Philips Brooks, 1868
Music: Lewis H. Redner, 1868
Dr Yeo Teck Beng –
is Principal of the Methodist School of Music, and a member of Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church.
1 Ernest K. Emurian, Living Stories of Famous Hymns (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1955), 97.
2 Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, Mich: Kregel Publications, 1990), 355.
3 Frank Colquhoun, A Hymn Companion: Insight into Three Hundred Christian Hymns (Wilton: Morehouse Barlow, 1985), 61.
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