O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks, 1868
Addressed to Bethlehem, angels, one another, and God the Son
O little town of Bethlehem,Mic. 5:2
   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;Is. 60:19–20; Luke 1:79
the hopes and fears of all the yearsIs. 50:10; Matt. 13:17; Heb. 11:13
   are met in thee tonight.Luke 1:70–75
For Christ is born of Mary;Luke 2:1
   and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
   their watch of wond’ring love.Ps. 91:11; Dan. 4:13; 1 Pet. 1:12
O morning stars, togetherJob 38:7
   proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,Luke 2:13–14
   and peace to men on earth.
How silently, how silently,Is. 53:7; Matt. 12:19; Luke 9:36; John 1:10
   the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
   the blessings of his heav’n.Eph. 1:3
No ear may hear his coming,John 5:37
   but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him still,Matt. 5:5; John 1:12
   the dear Christ enters in.Rev. 3:20
O holy child of Bethlehem,
   descend to us, we pray;John 6:33
cast out our sin and enter in;Mic. 7:19
   be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
   the great glad tidings tell;
oh, come to us, abide with us,
   our Lord Emmanuel.Matt. 1:23

The glory that Jesus’s first followers saw—glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14)—seemed a hidden glory, as though God imparted the blessings of heaven “silently.” The Jewish nation was spiritually asleep and without dreams. Few received heavenly announcements of Christ’s birth. The city of David was little, its streets dark. The stars were silent (except to foreign wise men!). Much the same could be said for Jesus’s ministry as an adult. When Peter, James, and John saw him transfigured with shining face and clothes white as light, they were all by themselves, isolated on a high mountain, and he commanded them to “tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead” (Matt. 17:9). Similarly, he commanded silence after healings (Mark 1:44) and after Peter’s confession of him as Christ (Luke 9:21). He explained the reason for the secrecy, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected” (Luke 9:22). Any widespread announcement of the Messiah’s advent would only mislead those who did not understand that he must suffer.

Christ could have come in a spectacular way, rather than as a helpless baby laid in a trough by a young mother far from home. The “first Christmas” could have been a splendid, blazing, purifying theophany. But what would have been the result? Surely it would have merely dazzled us in our misery and left us damned in our sins. Only after the resurrection were large numbers of believers ready to behold the Messiah’s glory. Then they realized that it never was hidden, for his humiliation was part of his glory, revealing God’s justice and love as nothing else could.

This hymn, despite a groundless reputation for sentimentality, is profound. The littleness and stillness of Bethlehem, the baby’s physical location, parallels the meekness of the soul who receives him. They also point to the vicarious obedience and death, begun in Bethlehem and finished at Golgotha, by which he obtained “peace for men on earth.” It is a mystery we could not perceive on our own (“No ear may hear his coming,” stanza 3, line 5) but which God’s messengers must explain (“We hear the Christmas angels,” stanza 4, line 5). The stars only seem silent (stanza 1, line 4) until we discover what they are metaphors for (stanza 2, line 5). Their very “silence” proclaims the gracious nature of the holy birth. Had stars fallen from the sky, had a multitude of the heavenly host confronted everyone, it would have been the end and not a new beginning. Instead, an everlasting Light shone in Bethlehem’s dark streets, as in us, when the dear Christ “entered in” not to condemn (John 3:17) but to abide, as Emmanuel, “God with us.”

The stanza-structure,, is unique. Its truncated fifth line breaks up the symmetry of the stanza and produces rhythmic tension that the return to common-meter rhythm in lines 7–8 resolves, thereby binding the iambic pattering of the eight-line stanza into a coherent, rhythmic whole. The sense of rhythmic fulfillment is enhanced by internal rhyme within line 7 (fears/years in stanza 1; note that there is internal rhyme within line 3 as well), which compensates for the lack of rhyme between lines 5 and 7 (and between lines 1 and 3). Where this sense of rhythmic fulfillment is combined with words of consummate craftsmanship, as in stanza 1 (words asserting, incidentally, the fulfillment of human history), the effect is unforgettable and worthy of the acclaim it has received from some quarters. Where that fulfillment is immediately followed in the first line of stanza 2 by the only metrical hiccup in the poem (there are only seven syllables where we expect eight, forcing us to sing “For Christ is born of Ma-a-ry”), the humility of the incarnation is made audible.

The traditional American tune ST. LOUIS has beauties that, to most singers’ minds, more than make up for the difficulty of singing the treacherous leaps in measures 2–4, 6, and 14. The odd manner in which the repeated A’s feel their way toward a lyrical shape (by way of a chromatic lower neighbor-note on “town,” a strange dissonance on the downbeat of “Beth-,” and then those difficult leaps in opposite directions at “-lehem, how”) fits the pensive content of the poem well. The melody cogitates. But it sings, too, in subsequent lines. The melody copes with the unusual syllable-count of line 5 by holding the first syllable of “shineth” for two beats, thereby stretching seven syllables to fit the eight beats of the phrase. C-sharps in the alto and tenor make the note radiant, harmonizing it with an A-major chord (in a key whose A chord is normally minor). The mysterious-sounding monophony of line 6 blooms into another, even more radiant, A-major chord for “Light.” Yet these A-major chords do double duty, functioning also as the dominant of D minor—that is, they imply a minor tonal center—which is perfect for stanza 3: “No ear may hear his com-ing, but in this world of sin.” The tune achieves closure by using the same melody for line 7 as for line 1, followed by a climactic octave skip at the beginning of line 8 for “are met” in stanza 1, “and peace” in stanza 2, and “our Lord” in stanza 4.