It would be difficult for any of us to conceive of what life and ministry would have been like during the height of the American Civil War. Who would have imagined that the Civil War would have been a backdrop for one of the most beautiful and beloved Christmas carols of our time? Phillips Brooks, the author of the “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” was an Episcopal priest, a powerful preacher and committed American patriot in the mid-late 19th century. He was a vocal advocate of the abolitionist cause and believed the gospel should infiltrate and saturate the practical world, bringing forth equity and justice for all.
At the end of the Civil war, after observing years of carnage, division, and hate, Phillips Brookes went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which concluded in a Christmas Eve service at Constantine’s ancient basilica (326 A.D.) built over the traditional site of the Nativity, a cave. During a horseback ride one evening between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Brooks was moved at the thought of the Messiah coming to such an isolated and seemingly insignificant place. His experiences during the Civil War contrasted his trip to Jerusalem provided the context for the song he would later write.
When you sing the words of this carol, you can hear hope in the midst of despair and light slicing through the darkness. Though the Civil war had brought out the worst in men and had carved deep divides into a nation, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Brookes knew that the balm of true healing for such national pain could only come as people looked back in time to the Savior born in the humble town of Bethlehem.
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” Luke 4:18
Today, we as Americans might not live in a war-torn land, but we still live in a sinful, broken world. We don’t have to look far to find hate, division, and hurt; sometimes we have to look no further than within our own hearts. The truths of this song still resonate with the human condition. Just as Christ came to the humble town of Bethlehem 2000 years ago, Christ comes to the humble heart today. They that welcome him into their dark streets will find Him shining His everlasting light.
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today