O Little Town of Bethlehem - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

I don’t need to tell people who have been coming to Emmanuel for some time what a treasure trove of art and architecture are to be found in and around the church. I see new things each time I enter the building. From the Daniel Chester French font to the exquisitely carved pulpit to the small statues over the doors to the narthex, there are amazing and affecting works of beauty to be seen.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the audience for the Peabody Brass concert, and I noticed for the first time on the bottom-right of the Great East Window a man vested as an Episcopal bishop. It is the figure of Phillips Brooks, one of the great preachers of the late nineteenth century. He served as rector of Holy Trinity in Philadelphia and then, for many years, as rector of Trinity Church in Boston—where one of his successors was Theodore Parker Ferris, rector of Emmanuel in the late 1930’s. Brooks later served for a time as Bishop of Massachusetts.

While he was widely renowned for his sermons, his most lasting impact may well be that he was the lyricist of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which we will sing this weekend. He wrote the hymn for his church’s Sunday school while he was in Philadelphia. The composer of the tune that accompanies his words, “St. Louis,” said: “neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

Happily, they were wrong. It’s now part of the Christmas tradition for countless people, though we sometimes sing it to various tunes. The reference to Bethlehem in the words “how still we see thee lie” is a vision of a time long ago, for Bethlehem is now caught up in the seemingly endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The “hopes and fears of all the years” resound there, yet they are not resolved.

This is a time when we proclaim with the angels, “peace to people of good will.” Let us be the people who pray and work for stillness in Bethlehem, peace around the world, and the turning of hearts so that the promise of Christmas—Emmanuel, God-with-us—will resound throughout creation.

— Jim Holmes