STLT#246-247 O Little Town of Bethlehem

So you know how yesterday I said I was coming up on the halfway point of this practice? I was at the halfway point three days ago! Can you believe it – I’ve gone through half the hymns already. What a wonderful gift it’s been so far, from the intimate spiritual practice I take up each morning and what that does for me ( a lot), to the knowledge I’ve been gaining about our hymns and hymnody (a lot), and the new friends I’ve made along the way (a lot!). And now, on to today’s hymn.

We have today another of our twofers – same lyrics set to different tunes. I wondered – indeed I did – why we have two tunes for this one, and I wondered if the Hymnal Commission was offering a familiar lyric as an object lesson on hymnody (and I’m certainly here for that). But in searching quickly for the original lyrics (by Episcopal minister Phillip Brooks) that we all know and love (more on that in a moment), I learned that the tune, by his organist, Lewis Redner, was quickly written for a Sunday morning, and as he noted later, “Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.” And while we are familiar with that tune (St Louis) here in the US, in the UK (and often, in American Episcopal churches), the words are sung to Ralph Vaughan WIlliams’ Forest Green (which we’ve already sung three times).

Which I find a little odd – the lyrics, to me, don’t imply a cheerful, bouncy air. They have always seemed like a lullaby lyric, with its emphasis on dark streets, deep sleep, silent nights, and mortals sleeping. Thus I prefer the hastily written original.

But now, on to the lyrics.

From our Christmas albums, we learned the original verses as follows (thanks again to Hymnary):

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 all 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.

I’m not a fan of a theology that centers “Jesus died for our sins”, especially when you consider that lets you ignore the man’s incredible ministry and message. In fact I think it’s wrong theology, and at the very least, it’s the wrong theology to be pushing at Christmastime.

And while I am always brought up short when we have rewritten lyrics, I was willing to compare, hoping these changes were not too conciliatory, attempting to make Christmas accessible to all. Now that’s not a bad thing, but sometimes we miss the point of a song when we tinker too much. I worried that we had taken the Christianity out of this carol, and by god, we need some good Christian Christmas Carols!

And this one isn’t a good Christian Christmas Carol.

I mean, look at the lyrics above – really look at them. The first two verses are fine – and our minor adjustment removes that tricky Empire stuff. But verses three and four of the original….blech.

So now let’s look at our verses, with really just a few lyric changes:

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.
Let praises ring: from God they bring goodwill to all on earth.

How silently, how silently the wonder is made known,
when God imparts to human hearts the gift that is our own.
No ear may hear that coming, but in this worldly din,
when souls are truly humble, then the dear babe rests within.

Now we have removed empire, AND we have refocused on what the message really is. Sure, it’s not exactly Phillip Brooks’ message, but heck, he’s a 19th century Episcopalian and surely won’t notice. But I think the correction we’ve got here actually makes it a more Christian message. The one we should be singing on Christmas.

Two quick postscripts:

First, sorry for the delay – feline complications. (She’s old and things get weird sometimes.)

Second, the photo is of modern-day Bethlehem.

Support this site

I am an entrepreneurial minister, which means I am a freelancer, and every part of my income comes from the work I do. The Hymn by Hymn Project was and is a labor of love, but I now am incurring increasing costs for hosting the site.

If everyone who visited gave just $5, those costs would be covered in a single week.

Whether you give once or monthly, your generosity will keep Hymn by Hymn free and available to to the tens of thousands of people who benefit from it.

Please support the project!


Learn more about my ministry at The Art of Meaning

Read my thoughts about congregational life at Hold My Chalice


%d bloggers like this: