O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
Life Out of Death
The scenes from the Middle East appearing on our television screens are repeatedly horrific and sickening. Soldiers firing on one another, and at civilians. Children with hate-filled faces hurling rocks and shouting defiance. Men and women weeping over the slain. Destruction, blood, and death. It is appalling. Because of that, the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem during some years have been subdued, and attendance restricted. The site of a famous birth has become a scene of danger and of carnage.
It has not always been that way as, year by year, tourists have flocked to the town to commemorate Christ's birth. In 1865, a pastor named Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) spent the season in the Holy Land. While there, he attended the Christmas Eve service in the Church of the Nativity, believed to be built over the site of Jesus' birth. The quiet reverence of that sacred time made a deep impression on Brooks. And that striking difference, between a peaceful Bethlehem and today's bloody battleground, might well cause us to ponder the broader contrast between life and death.
It is a contrast that is central to the Christian gospel. Why does the cross, an instrument of cruelty and death, decorate our churches, and often find use as a personal ornament? For many it is because there God reached down to save lost and fallen mankind. "By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us....God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him" (I Jn. 3:16; 4:9). Calvary, the "Place of a Skull" (Jn. 19:17) became the arena where eternal life was purchased by the blood of Christ. There is life out of death.
Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) believed that, and taught it in his church. He was known in his day as the "Prince of the Pulpit." One of America's greatest preachers, his sermons are still read and studied today. At six foot six, his presence in the pulpit was impressive--as was his machine-gun delivery, at a rate of 250 words per minute! But Pastor Brooks was a man of deep devotion as well. He served his congregation for twenty-two years, and though a life-long bachelor, he had a great affection for the children.
When his church planned a Christmas program, in 1868, he thought back to the blessing he had received in that memorable service in Bethlehem. With that in mind, Brooks wrote a song for the children to sing. His Sunday School Superintendent (and church organist) Lewis Redner, provided the music. The resulting creation is the now familiar carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
It begins, "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by." In contrast to the violence of the ongoing conflict, the song pictures a scene of tranquility and peace. Even so, in the calm of that first Christmas night, something awesome and life-transforming occurred. The Saviour was born, the "everlasting Light" was given.
Our attitude toward Christmas is coloured by our response to the One whose name it bears. Consider the closing verse of the carol: "O holy Child of Bethlehem, / Descend to us, we pray; / Cast out our sin and enter in-- / Be born in us today." That is a prayer, and a poetic description of God's plan of salvation.
It is by trusting in Christ's Calvary work, we can be saved. Through personal faith in Him, we are born again, born into the family of God. The Bible says, "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born...of God" (Jn. 1:12-13). And the offer still stands. In the words of Phillips Brooks, "Where meek souls will receive Him still, / The dear Christ enters in."