O little town of Bethlehem

Published 4:47 pm Tuesday, December 17, 2019

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By Charles Qualls

Our church carillon rings out during the day in downtown Franklin. On rare occasions, I can even hear it from inside my office. When I go out, though, I hear its comforting notes often. Today, I was walking back from lunch at one of our fine downtown establishments. Appropriately for the Advent season, I heard the familiar strains of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The story goes that Phillips Brooks was needing a song for the children’s choir of his church to sing. The year was 1868, and he pastored the Trinity Church in Philadelphia. He was down to a matter of days to compose a new song for the annual Christmas service. Three years before, he had toured the Holy Land. Riding horseback from Jerusalem, he had stopped in for a Christmas Eve service at a church in Bethlehem. For hours, he listened to the faithful in that church sing the songs of their Christmas hope. So near to where Jesus was born, Brooks found this to be inspiring.

Now, three years later, his own need for a song pressed him. His mind kept coming back to that experience in Bethlehem where the music had so soothed his spirit. Suddenly, new lyrics began to form like a poem.

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 to-night.

His faithful organist and friend composed music to go along with the new words. Mere days later, 36 children and six Sunday School teachers sang this now familiar Christmas hymn for the first time. While written for young ones, the song spoke far more broadly into all our lives.

Admittedly this is the approach of a tough holiday for many. Especially those who are freshly grieving the loss of a loved one. Perhaps a chair will sit empty at the table for the first time this year. Others are still absorbing hard news about their health, their work or a key relationship.

One resource from our faith might lend perspective and hope. In John 1:1-5, we hear the writer tell not only of Jesus’ coming. He also begins to make meaning of this news. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Something special can happen the closer Christmas comes. No, your problems may not magically disappear. Faith that is not grounded in reality does not deserve to be taken seriously. Yes, the questions that perplex you will still be there to answer in the days after the holiday. But, somehow the news of this Christ child truly can move like a balm into the deepest parts of our need.

I am thinking just now of the one who carries the heavy load of a progressive illness. He knows what lies ahead. Or the one who looks out the office window that is her corner view of the world. The administrative weight on her shoulders only compounds that which also needs her attention at home. In my mind, the lonely family member grieves in this season due to the tender news of their loss. My heart focuses on the fearful one walks heavy steps even now. Somewhere, a difficult decision challenges for space in the mind of the one who weighs various scenarios against each other.

My prayer is that somehow, in this special season, they will be reminded that they are not alone. They do not go unnoticed and they do not carry the load without help unless they choose. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

That’s what I want for all of us this Advent season. The serious, real and yet still mysterious hope that can be found in Christ.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.