Saturday, December 25, 2010
And Christmas Comes Once More
This is a re-post from Christmas 2008.
“The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.”
Lewis Redner had a problem. His boss, the Episcopal rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, had assigned him a task. He had handed Lewis, the church organist, a poem he had written after a trip to the holy land and had asked Redner to set it to music. His boss wanted to use it as part of the upcoming children’s Christmas program. Lewis had tried and tried but couldn’t come up with anything. And Christmas was fast approaching.
His boss was Phillips Brooks. Brooks was a great and beloved 19th century American preacher. But Phillips Brooks isn’t best known to us today because he was a great orator, or because he lectured at Harvard, or even because he wrote books on preaching that are still relevant today. He is best known to us because of a simple poem he once wrote.
Brooks had visited the holy land in 1865 and had attended a Christmas Eve Service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He was deeply moved by the experience of being in the very town where Jesus was born on the night in which his birth is celebrated. Brooks’ memory of the worship experience, and of the bleak hills overlooking the town of Bethlehem, stayed with him.
Brooks got back to America and three years later decided the poem he had written would make a good children’s hymn. And that’s why he had handed it over to his organist, Lewis Redner. And that’s why Lewis Redner was not a happy camper.
Finally, a night or so before the planned concert, Lewis went to bed in despair. As he lay in bed despairing, and, probably, commiserating with himself, a melody came to him out of the blue. He rolled out of bed, got it all down and presented it to his Rector the next day. When Phillips Brooks heard it, he reportedly said, "I think it was a gift from heaven."
And so do I.
The first performance of the beloved Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem was exactly 140 years ago this Christmas. If you go to a hymn book, you will see that Phillips Brooks wrote the lyrics, and Lewis Redner wrote the music. You might even notice that the tune itself is titled “St. Louis”. It is said that Brooks named the music “St. Louis” as a tribute to his organist Lewis Redner, changing the spelling slightly so as not to embarrass him unduly.
So, now you know "the rest of the story".
O Little Town of Bethlehem
1. 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.
"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight" --
All of human history, all human struggle, all human attainments and defeats, all longed for hopes and dreaded fears, are met and answered in the person born in Bethlehem that night. The fear of God’s anger for our sin, overcome. The fear of death, overcome. The fear of abandonment, overcome. The hope for a better life, for eternal life, brilliantly and wonderfully answered in the affirmative -- all wrapped up and centred in the beautiful baby boy born to Mary.
2. 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.
“Proclaim the holy birth” --
The birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God, is ground-zero of human history. Every moment prior is a moment of promise and anticipation. People who know about these things have counted the prophecies concerning the Messiah. There are dozens. Hundreds, even. And each one has found, or will find, its fulfillment in Christ. I’m going to point to just one --
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. "
Every moment up to the point of Jesus’ birth was one of expectation and promise. Every moment after is one of fulfillment, if not full and complete, at least the beginning of fulfillment. For on the day Jesus was born, a new race of humanity was born, and we are invited to participate in that new humanity by faith in Christ.
3. 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.
A story is told of a Christmas Sunday School presentation in a church -- you know the kind, with children playing various parts, the younger the kids, the better it seems to be. When they got to the part about Mary and Joseph knocking on the door, and the Inn-keeper saying he had no room in the Inn, a young child in the audience couldn’t contain herself; she blurted out, “you can stay at our house”! Are we prepared to offer the same invitation? Is there room in our busy lives for Christ? Can he stay at our house?
There is a “Lost Stanza” to O Little Town Of Bethlehem. Most hymnals skip over verse four and cut to the final verse. Here it is:
4. Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
"The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more."
As the Queen’s chaplain said recently in a sermon preached at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Singapore, “Jesus Christ transforms every situation he enters”. He never leaves a situation the same as it was. He never leaves a person the same as he was. It is as Scrooge cries out on Christmas Day, “I’m not the man I was! I’m not the man I was!”. Dicken's A Christmas Carol may have been a work of fiction, but, steeped in the vapors of Christianity, its pages bear the sweet fragrance of the timeless truths of repentance and transformation.
5. O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!
The final verse is a prayer. Implicit in this prayer is the sure belief that the babe was not only born in Bethlehem, he also suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. It is to this One, whose "origins are from of old, from ancient times" that we offer our prayer at Christmas:
"Lord, you can stay at our house! Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us to-day."
Those of us who do will find that, in our hearts, "the dark night wakes, the glory breaks...
And Christmas comes once more".
Merry Christmas to all who happen this way. May you be blessed.
"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"