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 to-night.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
How silently, oh 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.
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
This Christmas, I am struck by the hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem. At first, my critical spirit came out in thinking of the lyrics “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” My thought was that it was not given silently, but proclaimed by voices of angels. The prophets of old had ubiquitously foretold of this blessed event. An angel appeared to Zacharias months before creating quite a noise concerning the whole affair. Mary and Joseph each received angelic visits. The birth of Zacharias and Elizabeth’s son, John, also began a ripple effect throughout Israelite communities. Then the angels get a bunch of shepherds all excited about a baby in a manger. The shepherds go throughout the countryside telling of the miraculous events. The wise men show up in Jerusalem causing the entire city to be troubled about the events. It doesn’t seem the gift was given very silently to me.
But what does the author mean by this? In other portions he writes, “O morning stars, together Proclaim the holy birth!” and “We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell;”, so he must be thinking along the same lines as me. His point is not that the entire affair went without notice. I think the key lies in the phrase, “While mortals sleep, the angels keep Their watch of wondering love.”
The author, if I may presume to know his thoughts, is trying to tell us that many went on sleeping as if it were just another day. Many people did not wake up and go to the manger to see the Baby. The world at large lay sleeping in a spiritual slumber. Bethlehem was not a super spiritual town. It was not an economic or governmental center for anything. It was just a little town with lots of sleeping people, and that didn’t change one bit with the birth of the King of kings and LORD of Lords right in her midst.
The gift was given without much fanfare by the world’s standards. Instead of announcements at Rome or Herod’s palace, the angels appeared to shepherds out in a field. A few wise men from the East came bearing gifts, but the rulers of the empire in charge paid no mind, except Herod acting out of jealousy. For most people, it was just another night. The stars went by on that night just like any other. The sun came up in the morning and nothing had changed for them. Yet even with the continuing spiritual darkness, the everlasting light had come into the world.
So after resolving this issue of what I thought at first was a non-scriptural idea in this beloved hymn, I began meditating on the verses. It is striking how clear the message of salvation is laid out in the hymn. Christ is truly the everlasting light. His birth was a holy birth. Every true hope that every mortal has ever had from the beginning of creation, every fear that anyone has trembled over, any troublesome thought in the back of anyone’s mind; all these were met in the Christ child as He entered the world in His own humble way.
I love the last (fifth) verse. We do hear the Christmas angels. It is not that we literally hear their voices, but we read the scriptures and hear what they said so long ago in our heart of hearts even today. We understand that He is Emmanuel, God with us. He casts out our sin and enters in to abide with us in our present state. As His birth allowed Him to enter the world, our spiritual birth allows Him to enter our hearts.
The fourth verse has not been included in any hymnal that I have seen as of yet. I wonder if it is because there is mention of children praying to the blessed Child. I don’t think we should get hung up on a detail such as this. If children pray to Jesus, I’m sure it is taught in their church that He is no longer a Child; but the hymn writer is still correct because this Child in the Bible was King, Messiah, and Lord even while a child. The point in that fourth verse is quite powerful. When children, or misery itself cries out, something wonderful occurs. The door of separation is held open by faith under the watchful eye of charity. The spiritual darkness is brought to waking, the glory breaks through, and into that heart crying out in faith, Christmas truly comes. That’s the message of salvation taught in the Christmas story. I love that the hymn writer believed that we can experience the true Christmas through salvation, even though we could not be there for the Saviour’s birth so long ago.
The original point of this hymn is that the town of Bethlehem was just a “little” town. The only thing special about it was Christ. In that little town, only a relatively few were spiritually awake to appreciate the birth of the Saviour. The news of His birth fell on deaf ears because they were spiritually deaf. “No ear may hear His coming,” how sad. Yet there is hope in this third verse. Even in the midst of “this world of sin”, God is making a way for man to be with God. “Where meek souls will receive Him still.” The word “still” most likely means “silently” in the poetry of that day. How “still” or “silently”, we see thee lie. So a meek soul receives Christ without a bunch of fanfare. Just as His birth escaped the headlines of the world news in that day, a meek soul receiving Christ silently will not make the six o’clock news today. The true, earth shattering decisions made in our lifetimes will not be proclaimed from the rooftops. It shouldn’t be any wonder. If our Saviour’s birth was such a relatively quiet event, our spiritual births after His likeness will follow His example. That doesn’t negate the truth that “where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” He truly is – God with us.
If you have witnessed the transformation of the Dear Christ entering some sinner’s heart, you have seen Christmas come… again.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman