As a young child, one of the first Christmas songs I learned was “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” My family had a little wooden crèche that we brought out at Christmastime, and it had a little music box inside it. I liked to wind up the star over the manger and listen to it play “O Little Town of Bethlehem” while I played with the ceramic figurines of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.
While I loved that song from an early age, I only learned the story of how it came to be a few years ago. The song was written by a nineteenth-century Episcopal priest, Phillips Brooks, who served as rector of Trinity Church in Boston and later was Bishop of Massachusetts, and he found inspiration for the song while on a trip to the Holy Land in 1865. He served at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve in a church in Bethlehem, and afterwards he wrote this about his experience:
I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.
Knowing that Brooks based this hymn on an actual visit to Bethlehem has changed my estimation of it. I had begun to think of the song as sweet but a little schmaltzy, depicting a quiet romanticized village instead of an actual place that has struggled to find peace, both in Jesus’ time and in recent years. During a trip to the Holy Land in 2008, I found my romantic notions of Bethlehem dismantled and replaced by a more realistic picture of what this little town has endured over the centuries. My travel group spent most of our nights at a hotel in Bethlehem, which gave us time to talk with the Christian Palestinian couple who owned the hotel, to visit Bethlehem Bible College, which trains young Christians for ministry, and to walk through a checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. At the Church of the Nativity, we marveled at ancient mosaics and the grotto commemorating Jesus’ birth, but we also couldn’t ignore the lingering signs of damage from the siege that occurred there during the Second Intifada in 2002. As much as we might have wanted Bethlehem to be the little peaceful village we like to imagine in biblical times, we couldn’t close our eyes to the strife and challenges that plague the place where Jesus was born.
And upon going back to our Bibles, we also had to admit that Bethlehem wasn’t a peaceful little village in Jesus’ time either; it was the place where Herod’s soldiers carried out the brutal Massacre of the Innocents. Bethlehem has never escaped the darkness of this world, not in the past or in the present. When I go back to read Brooks’s words more carefully, I realize that he never intended to paint a sweet little picture of Bethlehem; instead, he describes it as shrouded in darkness and in need of a new hope. The town sleeps, unaware that in its midst an everlasting light has begun to shine in the person of Christ. What is true for the little beleaguered city of Bethlehem is true for the whole world; every place on earth needs to hear those voices ringing out, telling of the Savior’s birth. May he be born in us again this Christmas season.
The featured image is a photo of Bethelhem in 2008 and was supplied by the author.