Advent Stories: O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks

Boston, Massachusetts, 1892

How does one write a funeral address for President Abraham Lincoln? Defender of the Union, the leader who stood at the end of indescribable violence and promised restoration and reconciliation—until his own life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

That was the task I was charged with as a young, rising preacher who had been relentless in opposition to slavery. I labored over that sermon, going without sleep, knowing it would be kept in an ecclesial vault for the ages, and knowing too that this eulogy must somehow find itself equal to the task of remembering the greatest man of our age. I drafted and redrafted until it was beautiful, finding the perfect balance of eloquence and truth and delivered it perfectly.

These, I knew, were the most important words I would ever speak.

I was wrong.

Then, shortly afterward, weary of war and violence and longing for rest, I took a sabbatical to the Holy Land. I journeyed from grand Jerusalem to insignificant Bethlehem, there to celebrate the birth of Christ in an hours-long service. Looking at the dark horizon, so little changed over nearly two thousand years, the beginning of a poem began to form, and the poem became a song: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.”

The children’s choir sang my song that next Christmas, their innocent voices warbling in the candlelight, and the response was incredible. Hymnals began including my humble verse, with churches throughout the country playing it each year in December.

These, I thought, surely were the most important words I would ever pen.

I was wrong about that too.

I don’t want to limit the Lord, but assuming my life is nearly over, as it seems to be, the greatest words I ever spoke were to a young girl, delivered to her by an interpreter, that brought her to belief in Christ. And the greatest words I ever penned were my letters to her, over the past several years since, answering her questions and encouraging her in her faith.

Even calling them my words would be incorrect. The funeral oration was mine. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” mine. But the gospel, simple enough to be understood by a child, complex enough to keep an old divine puzzling in his library for years on end, is not mine at all. It is God’s, and the words were from him as well.

You see, that girl, the one who had never heard of spiritual things, had only recently learned to “hear” at all, through a fascinating series of hand signals pressed into her palm by her devoted teacher. That child, deaf and blind, was named Helen Keller. And after Miss Sullivan asked me to speak to her—well not to her directly, but through translation—I’ll never forget the beaming smile on her face, the way her hands moved rapidly in the hands of her tutor.

Miss Sullivan looked up at me in wonder. “She said, ‘I’ve always known there was a God, but until now I’ve never known his name.’” As time went on and she began to be noticed by the world, she wrote to me and said, “Even in the darkness of my isolation, I have never felt alone.”

“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.”

We can’t know, can we, what our lives will amount to, what God will choose to use? I am honored to have put a great man to rest with words that comforted a grieving nation. I am grateful, too, to know the joy of choirs retelling the story of my visit to ancient Bethlehem.

But I know when I pass into heaven and God says, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” it will be for a few simple words of redemption and love delivered to a child who would never hear them.

“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.”

I didn’t know Helen as I wrote my carol—she had not even been born—and yet it’s uncanny how the verse captures the joy of salvation arriving silently to a deaf and blind child whose ears could not hear his coming, but whose heart had long recognized his presence. She will go on declaring the love of God to others long after I’m gone.

And yet…isn’t that true of every child? Not just the ones who capture the attention of the nation?

Here I was, so sure I knew where my significance would lie. It could be that the great deeds we grasp at, the approval of figureheads and the applause of thousands, are not so great in God’s sight. For these, we receive our reward here on earth. But perhaps when we reach our celestial home, we will be commended for the small things: the instinctive kindnesses, the quiet changes of attitude, the forgotten charities to those who could never pay us back.

Maybe that is, after all, the message of the child born in insignificant Bethlehem: that the great and mighty will be humbled and the meek lifted high. The babe in the manger came out of love for Helen, but also each nursery child in my congregation—and outside of it.

And in that one baby are met the hopes and fears of all the years. Tonight, and every night.

(This is the latest in a series of fictionalized narratives based on the true history of beloved Christmas carols. To learn more about Phillips, go here. To read past narratives, go here.)

2 comments

  1. This is a neat little series. 🙂

    I feel bad because I haven’t stopped by in a while, but the ol’ blog sprang to mind today so I wanted to come pour over the latest posts. Keep up the good work!

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