Phillips Brooks was a young, promising Episcopal clergyman in Philadelphia. His six-foot-nine frame and his outgoing manner made him popular with the young people in his church and the community. In 1865, the church sent him on a trip to broaden his horizons. After some time traveling in Europe, he planned his schedule to end in the Holy Land during the Holiday season. On Christmas Eve he traveled the five miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. He had been invited to help officiate during the five-hour service (10 pm to 3 am) at the Church of the Nativity, the worship center shared by three Christian traditions, built over the cave where Jesus’ birth is believed to have taken place. Originally built in AD 327, this church is full of relics, artwork and traditions from 1600 years of faith history. It must have been a great honor for Rev. Dr. Brooks to minister during the service of remembrance on the anniversary of the night Jesus was born there.
But that’s not what Brooks held most in his memory of that night. On the horseback ride toward Bethlehem, local guides informed him that they were crossing through the hilltop pastureland where shepherds were watching their sheep that night and where they had been greeted by an angel, who said, “To you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.” He looked down toward the lights of what in 1865 was a small village (before modern commercialism moved in). He imagined back 2,000 years, when Bethlehem was even smaller, and he looked through the shepherds’ eyes, and that’s what he tried to communicate to the children of his church by writing this song:
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.
The Civil War had recently ended, the conflict that had resulted in more American deaths than all of its other wars combined. It was clear that Reconstruction efforts in the South were not healing the wounds and scars left from the conflict. There was continuing political tension. In this context, Brooks was trying to preach a positive message to the people of his church. He realized that Jesus also came into a world where fragile hopes could easily be dashed by real fears. But he saw that in the Baby’s birth that night, “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in that little town. So, he proclaimed the “everlasting Light” in his sermons and in this song.
In the second verse of the song, Brooks retells the familiar Christmas story, including the heavenly praise response:
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 men on earth;
Brooks then makes the Good News very personal, telling each of us how we can experience the New Birth in our own hearts:
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.
Finally, as a person is singing this song, Brooks puts in his/her mouth a simple welcoming prayer for inviting Christ to be born in one’s own heart, right here and now:
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.
He has brought the singer to a quiet place beside the Baby’s manger where she/he can face personal “hopes and fears” in the presence of the “everlasting Light.”
— Pastor George Van Alstine