Christmas Hymn: O Little Town of Bethlehem

Editor’s Note: Modern hymn writer Keith Getty has written a series of essays, each focusing on a Christmas hymn or carol. This is the sixth of an 11-part series in Baptist Press.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The very first talk I gave in the U.S. was at Harvard University – I had been asked to give a talk on hymns at Phillips Brooks House, a rather stately-looking building on the campus named after an influential mid-19th century preacher and overseer of Harvard.

Brooks was also a hymn writer and the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which he was inspired to write after a visit to Bethlehem in 1865. He wrote it three years later for a Sunday school class, and neither he nor Lewis Redner, the composer of the original melody, thought it would last beyond Christmas 1868. But the powerful simplicity of the carol’s lyrics has ensured its longevity.

There are now two main melodies – the original U.S. version by Redner and a British version by Vaughn Williams. At our Christmas concerts we alternate the melodies; we do two verses of each in our arrangement.

This carol takes us on a wonderful journey from the past to the present. We start by looking down on the town where Jesus’ birth takes place, with the line, “How still we see thee lie.” It reminds us that Bethlehem barely stirs as the most significant event in the history of the world unfolds beneath its starry sky. It emphasizes the almost stealth-like appearance of Jesus as a baby, born in humble circumstances, born ‘while mortals sleep,’ with only the angels and a group of unsuspecting shepherds as witnesses to this momentous occasion.

And then we are reminded that this event is about so much more than the birth of a baby in a small, seemingly insignificant town in a Middle Eastern country; it’s about the Light of the World overcoming the darkness.

Yet in the dark street shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight

The last two verses move us on from that historic moment and lead us to the present. Now we consider how this baby, this gift of God has changed history and how His birth and ultimately His death and resurrection have enabled us to be reconciled to God.

My favorite verse is the third one:

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

In the midst of the often chaotic Christmas season, a season that can be one of celebration but also one of regret, disappointment and guilt, the beautiful words of this verse remind us that in the midst of all this, in the middle of our strivings, Jesus is longing to meet with us but He humbly waits for us to welcome Him in: “where meek souls will receive Him still.” Still, even today, He enters in. What an amazing offer!

It can be easy to forget the potency of the words of this carol; yet it is essentially an invitation for people to receive and experience the new birth and new life that Jesus offers. “Be born in us today” – this new life is available to anyone who will receive it. As we sing this song in our Christmas church services, we can be sure that there will be people who need to hear this, who need to know that Jesus’ birth isn’t just a historical fact but something that can make a difference to their lives today.

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born in us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

Oh, come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Immanuel!

Finally, the last verse finishes on the triumphal note of hope and assurance that God is with us. That He has chosen to abide with us. That He is not distant but close. That He is Immanuel. It’s incredible!

About Keith and Kristyn Getty

Keith and Kristyn Getty are modern hymn writers whose compositions are sung the world over. For more information on Getty Music and the Sing! initiative, visit www.gettymusic.com.

Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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