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.