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O Little Town of Bethlehem

By Stephen G. Mackereth

Phillips Brooks is a name well known to all Harvard students. Lesser known, however, is the fact that Phillips Brooks wrote my favorite Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem—a carol which turns out to be surprisingly profound.

Brooks spent Christmas Eve, 1865, in the town of Bethlehem itself. He was deeply moved by the old town, and the memory of that night remained with him. In a letter dated Feb. 19, 1866, Brooks wrote: “I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices that I knew well, telling each other of the 'Wonderful Night' of the Saviour's birth, as I heard them a year before; and I assure you I was glad to shut my ears for a while and listen to the more familiar strains that came wandering to me halfway round the world.”

A few years later, he penned “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The subtlety of the carol is too seldom recognized. The greatest problem is that the fourth verse is usually omitted. This is a great pity, since it is the fourth verse that most uniquely reflects the character of Phillips Brooks himself, the Phillips Brooks whose great practical compassion we remember in the name of the Phillips Brooks House Association. Here is the missing verse:

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.

In a single verse, Brooks has brilliantly captured the unity of three often disparate strands of Christmas tradition: symbolism, story, and spirit.

We are all familiar with the glorious symbolism of Christmas: the nativity scenes, the star, the shepherds and angels, the mother, the child.

Perhaps we are also familiar with the story of Christmas, the complex historical narratives surrounding the man Jesus of Nazareth, beginning with his birth, ending with his death, detailing his historical life in the gritty non-airbrushed realities of first-century Palestine. This too is remembered in the Christmas season.

And finally, many of us feel the spirit of Christmas. Certainly there’s something of the comforting family hearth in it, but deeper than that, there’s a sense of joy, a desire for peace, a hope for a better world. Deeper, deeper, there is a resolute practicality in that spirit of giving, quite apart from the petty consumerist nonsense. One frequently hears encouraging stories around Christmastime of people serving complete strangers, out of the curious conviction that we are not complete strangers to one another, or that our estrangement is truly the superficial and passing thing. That conviction is caritas, the mighty, living, powerful, practical, infinite tide of servant-like love, selfless charity, unafraid to look the unclean things of the world in the eye and thus, in gentleness, begin to make them clean. Christmas contains a call to respond, a call to serve, a call to arms.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” communicates the unity of the symbolism, spirit, and story of Christmas. Cynics might see only the symbolism of Christmas, without having grasped the story (which is rather more than just a conglomeration of kitschy images) nor the spirit (which has rather more substance to it than the commercials let on). Humanists might be less cynical of the Christmas spirit, perhaps genuinely celebrating and rejoicing in the values that Christmas represents, but may not see the relevance of the symbolism or the story behind it. If only we could truly unite the ancient and modern stories of Christmas!

Into the fray enters “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” simultaneously gentle and yet game-changing, just like the entrance of the Christ-child. As the third verse has it:

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.

Christmas is endlessly relevant to us because it is emblematic of the way God enters this world: gentle and yet game-changing, the transcendent God fully present in the unassuming vesture of the infant. As G.K. Chesterton puts it in The Everlasting Man, “It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten,” and in another place captures the paradox: “the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.” Caritas is always like that. Caritas turns the world upside down.

I close with Phillips Brooks's fifth and final verse.

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!

(The G.K. Chesterton passages cited are from The Everlasting Man, Part II, Ch.1, “The God in the Cave.” See also Chesterton’s wonderful poem, “The House of Christmas.”)

Stephen G. Mackereth '15 is a joint mathematics and philosophy concentrator in Mather House.

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