Carols of Christmas – “O Little Town of Bethlehem” pt.2

Tonight we are singing and studying the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem from Alan Vermilye’s book The Carols of Christmas.


The story of the Incarnation is that Jesus comes for the least, the last, the lost, and the little (as we read in Father Capon’s book early this year). From the very beginning, Jesus demonstrates this ministry by choosing to be born in a Judaen village that fits this description. Brooks begins his carol with a reference to Micah 5:2: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” Although King David was born in Bethlehem, he died and was buried in Jerusalem. As Vermilye writes, the word “little” in Micah does not reference size so much as significance. (Day 16). Bethlehem was not only small but was insignificant. But it was into this insignificance that God chose to take on flesh and become like one of us. And it is with those who are insignificant in the world – the least, the last, the lost, and the little – with whom he will continue to identify. Matt. 25:40.


The second verse opens with the line “For Christ is born of Mary.” For Day 18, Vermilye invites us to think about who Mary is and who she represents. Like Bethlehem, she too is insignificant – a young Jewish peasant girl living in Roman-occupied Judah. God caused her to become pregnant, although she was unmarried which would have been scandalous and potentially deadly in her tradition. And the promise she was given by Simeon was that a sword will pierce her own soul. Luke 2:35. But, despite her position, condition, and prediction, the angel tells her that she is the favored one of God. Luke 1:28. In Mary we are reminded that the true spirit of Christmas is God favoring those of humble origins, of doing mighty things for his people, and of exalting those of low degree. Luke 1:46-55.


Too often, when we think of the voice of God, we think of the pyrotechnics and cacophony of Revelation. What we find at Christmas, in Jesus’s ministry, and throughout the Christian tradition, is that God is found in the sound of sheer silence. 1 Kings 19:12. (Day 19). And in this silence, “a wondrous gift is given.” Within this stanza, notice how Brooks moves from a description of the Nativity to a description of our life in Christ. The carol is no longer about the village of Bethlehem, but about the human heart. And it is here, in the silence and the stillness of the heart, that the psalmist says that we come to know God. Ps. 46:10.


The town of Bethlehem is only the beginning of the story. The final verse is about the end of the story of the child of Bethlehem casting out our sin. As Books borrowed from Micah 5 in verse one, so here he borrows from Micah 7:19: “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Day 20). Brooks gives us this beautiful vision that as Jesus becomes reborn within each of us, this process casts out the sin that is within us. It is as if our hearts have only so much space that as Jesus moves in, sin moves out. As we looked at previously in our study of St. Leo the Great’s Christmas sermons, the birth of Jesus also marks our (re)birth as well. Christmas is not simply a historical event that happened in a land far away a long time ago but is an event that actively and presently occurs in your life and throughout the Church here and now.

Dinner is at 6. The menu is chicken mole. Singing and Discussion around 6:45. Hope to see you here. Next week is our study group Christmas Party. Details to follow.

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 the 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!

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