O Little Town of Bethlehem

For the first text of Christmas, this blogger gives to thee…

We begin our exploration of Christmas texts with a poem written near TWS headquarters, right here in Philadelphia! Shortly after the American Civil War, the Reverend Phillips Brooks, then the rector at Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, visited the Holy Land on sabbatical. Upon his return, inspired by memories of his visit, he penned O Little Town of Bethlehem, one of the season’s most popular carols.

The first verse shows a poetic reverence for a place dear to the authors heart, while introducing the eternal Christmas gift that is Jesus. Verse two references the song of the majestic angels to the lowly shepherds (Luke 2:14) on the night of Christ’s birth. And the final two verses whisper of the power this Jesus brings to overthrow sin, ending with a prayer to Jesus to save and live with the singer.

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 wond’ring 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 giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heav’n.
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 Immanuel!

Three Settings

The most common hymn setting of this famous text is by Louis Redner, the organist at Church of the Holy Trinity when Brooks wrote the poem. (Only the first two verses, unfortunately!)

In 1906, the legendary composer Ralph Vaughan Williams took the English folk tune FOREST GREEN and used it as another beautiful setting for the hymn.

In case you don’t have a full choir at your disposal (you don’t!?), here’s a rearrangement of the Redner tune from Shane and Shane.

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