On Christmas Eve in 1865, Philip Brooks, a minister of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, travelled through the fields from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. He wrote about this journey:

“After and early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better build than any other we have seen in Palestine. . . . Before dark, we rode out of town to the field, where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, the put the shepherds. The story is ubsurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been. . . . As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ “or leading them home to fold.”

They followed the path of the shepherds into Bethlehem and assisted in a midnight service at the Church of the Nativity. He wrote of this service : “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth as I heard them a year before; and I assure you, I was glad to shut my ears a while and listen to the more familiar strains that cam wandering to me halfway round the world.”

It was this night that struck a note in his heart and inspired words that are sung throughout the world year after year, O Little Town of Bethlehem was born. Though it wasn’t until a few years later when Philip Brooks gave the words to the organist Louis Redner and asked him to write a tune to go with it.

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.

O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the king,
And peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary;
And, gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.

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.

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.

It is one of my favourite carols and knowing it’s inspiration somehow makes it so much richer. But it is not just ‘nice’ song. It has great theological truths through it’s core, what better to reflect on this Christmas Eve nearly 150 years later. I started to highlight some of the verses to draw out some truth and inspiration, but as I start I realise that I cannot leave any out, this is not scripture but it is surely birthed in heaven. The message of the night of Jesus’ birth is captured so eloquently and the call to believe in the one who is eternal is resounding.

O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.

Quotes from – Studies of familiar Hymns – Louis F Benson