The Bethlehems of Our Lives

Do you have a memory of a time when your experience of the presence of Jesus was palpable? I don’t mean an emotional moment or a campfire conversion in grade-school. I mean a time and place of simplicity and humility. A season when there was nothing glamorous about you left and your persona had finally turned you in. You had come to the end of yourself and wondered why it had been such a long trip. At the end of that road was an encounter so profoundly silent and powerful that it could hardly be articulated yet it was as if something has just passed through you.

Phillips Brooks, the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity of Philadelphia in 1865 was on a year long tour of Europe and the East when he penned one of America’s most loved and well known Christmas poems.

One evening after an early dinner he and his fellow travelers rode on horseback through the Eastern countryside and came upon the simple town of Bethlehem. He was intrigued by the way the small town was situated on a range of hills and terraced gardens. After passing fields where shepherds were still tending their flocks he imagined a night long ago when over the same fields angels appeared to a band of ragtag misfits announcing the coming of the Savior.

Moved by the humble surroundings in which God chose to bring himself in human flesh into the world, Brooks began to pen the words to the Christmas carol known as, O Little Town of Bethlehem. The beauty of the poem is in its simplicity, much like the beauty of Bethlehem herself.

It was a couple of years later that the poem was set to music by Brooks’ organist, Lewis Redner and later performed in a Sunday School program for children. Redner is said to have been awakened in the night with an “angel strain” playing in his ear and quickly grabbed staff paper, jotted down the melody and set the harmony to it at the church the following morning which was a Sunday in December of 1868.

It was over twenty years later that the song, after growing in popularity finally made its way into a hymnal for the Protestant Episcopal Church. It is now one of the most recognized carols of our time.

The simple melody fit the simple lyric. The simple lyric fit the humble, secluded town which inspired it.

Bethlehem, mangers, stables, shepherds; it is in the most humble and desperate of circumstances that Jesus shows up. It is in the Bethlehems of our lives that we find Jesus. It is in the stables and the mangers of our story, those seasons when the shine has worn off that we entertain an encounter with a Savior.

As Phillips Brooks wrote:

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.

The Beautiful Dissonance of Advent

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” Frederick Beuchner, Whistling In the Dark

When I was a young piano student my teacher would take me to a number of concerts featuring our local philharmonic orchestra and guest instrumentalists. I studied piano at the University of Evansville Preparatory School of Music and had the same piano professor from the time I was in the fourth grade until I graduated from high school. I was in grade school when she first offered me those unique opportunities to experience such amazing musical performances.

Such sophisticated events were always a treat for me. My mother would get out my suit and make sure I was crisply pressed. She also managed to confiscate my chewing gum and make sure that I had one last crash course in Manners 101 before going out the door to the local concert hall in our Indiana town.

The anticipation would first begin to stir within me when my teacher even mentioned a new guest pianist that would be coming to perform with the symphony. When the day arrived I was giddy and could think of nothing else. Getting ready to go wasn’t my favorite part but if it takes wearing a suit in order to hear such irresistible music then so be it.

When we arrived at the auditorium an usher with a tiny flashlight would escort us to our seats in the dimly lit venue. Even the twilight level of the lights told me that I was in for something incredible and extraordinary. Sitting down in the spring-loaded theater seats my freshly polished dress shoes barely touched the floor as I fumbled with my program and fidgeted with excitement.

Eventually, the orchestra members, all in concert black, filed to their respective positions on the stage and took their seats. The concertmaster rose to the podium and upon a cue from him a most unusual and unexpected sound arose from the cavernous stage. It was the most dissonant and yet strangely transcendent bouquet of tones. It began with a few instruments on the same pitch and then it was joined by other instruments a fifth above or a fourth below. The swirling passages by flutes and clarinets practicing one last pass of runs that would be played masterfully later emerged in the thick sonic sauce known as tuning the orchestra.

The tones grew louder as they resonated and bellowed out into the massive concert hall. There was nothing particularly beautiful about this sound but it set the stage for what was to come and it created anticipation in us for that moment we had all waited weeks to experience. It was also a vital part of making beautiful music.

Suddenly there was silence. It was as if the air had been sucked from the room. The twilight setting of the lights faded away to darkness and even the tiniest bit of murmuring in the auditorium ceased. There was a holy hush that fell upon the room as if every person was holding their breath. It was an extraordinary moment before an extraordinary happening.

From the wings of the stage a rotund man in a tuxedo and tails emerged bathed in a white spotlight holding a baton as if it were a fragile reed. The spontaneous applause that broke forth from the audience was thunderous and wholehearted. The conductor bowed humbly acknowledging our generosity and then took the podium where every eye was completely fixed on his suddenly stalwart countenance.

He raised his baton with the grace of a feather floating upward. The silence was deafening and we, the audience desperately needed to exhale as we waited for him to unleash what would become two hours of the most beautiful music ever written.

To borrow Frederick Beuchner’s analogy, the moment that the baton is raised becomes the extraordinary moment before the extraordinary happening that we have been waiting for. As he said, this extraordinary moment is called Advent.

As I began to ponder the season of Advent this year it reminds me a great deal of the experiences I had as a youngster listening to the orchestra preparing to play. We must expect some beautiful dissonance before the peace is delivered that has been promised. Life has some artistic discord that must be embraced in that preparation season.

What does life look like when the baton is raised? Those moments find us walking a friend through their grief, meeting a monetary need, showing mercy to the sick, sitting with a troubled young woman with a difficult decision to make, spending our days mentoring a young man who has no father – these are the moments the lyric of O Come, O Come Immanuel paints so well.

This is the beautiful dissonance. Christ has come and this is what he looks like.

The beautiful dissonance of Advent is to be savored. It is the season of extraordinary opportunities, extraordinary anticipation, and extraordinary joy before the baton falls and the most beautiful music is unleashed upon us. We are enjoying the tension of that extraordinary moment before the extraordinary happening. In this anticipation is joy and shalom, the peace He came to bring.