Christmas Eve ~ O Little Town of Bethlehem
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Have you ever been to Bethlehem? On December 30th 1865, at the age of 30, the American Bishop Philips Brooks went there and wrote these words to his father:
Last Sunday morning we attended service in the English church, and after an early dinner took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. The great church of the Nativity is its most prominent object; it is shared by the Greeks, Latins, and Armenians, and each church has a convent attached to it. We were hospitably received in the Greek convent, and furnished with a room. Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. … As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks,” or leading them home to fold.
Three years after this visit, Brooks wrote his carol.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
Peace on earth is an interesting concept, isn’t it? The angels over those Bethlehem fields gave it to us, and we have struggled with it ever since. It has become the great hope of Christmas, but one place where if there is peace it is very fragile, and that is Bethlehem itself. Philips Brooks’ vision of somewhere ethereally still, calm and peaceful still eludes us today.
Six miles from Jerusalem, the little town of Bethlehem is in the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank. Any pilgrim or tourist who wants to go to Bethlehem or Jerusalem today or tomorrow has to be very careful indeed, because of what Donald Trump has said and done, which the United Nations have now rounded condemned. Palestinian Israel has become a volatile, unpredictable place, again. So in thinking of that little town, we need to weave Christmas past with Christmas present, holding in tension the joy to the world that God’s gift of Jesus is to us; but also lamenting the very present fact that the peace and goodwill which the angels proclaimed, is a Christmas present from on high that is still yet to be unwrapped in the very place where it was first delivered.
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.
What difference will this Christmas make? When one has cracked the Christmas nut, what lies at the kernel? After all the noise, what lies at the silent heart? For many it is peace and goodwill, charity, care and love. And it needs to be. We live in a dark world and we each carry shadows from our past. But the greatest gift of God to us at Christmas is forgiveness. We have a vague hope that we can save ourselves – be the agents of our own salvation - but we are not able to deal with our own sin. If you’ve been watching Blue Planet over the last few weeks, you’ll know that we can do more damage to the planet and each other than our ancestors could, which means we need to hear the angels’ song louder, above the clamour of an overcrowded, war-torn, beautiful blue planet – the only one as far as we know, which sustains anything like the wondrous gift of life we have been given to care for and enjoy. ‘Sin’ is an out of fashion, disused, awkward word, but if we were to rephrase it, and speak of the damage we do to ourselves and others, and how we are so often not able to live up to our full potential as creatures made in the image of God, we get a glimpse of ourselves and understand that Jesus is the solution. For he is the Prince of Peace: the one who can make sense of our pasts and give us a hopeful future.
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee,
Son of the Mother mild;
Where Charity stands watching
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
That’s a verse you don’t know: It is the missing verse from Phillips Brooks’ carol. Expunged from hymn books because it was a bit close to the bone, it is actually the one that speaks most directly to us.
In 1840, the year before Prince Albert gave us the first Christmas Tree, and three years before London first wept for Tiny Tim and cursed Scrooge, the population of England and Wales was almost 16 million. The Vaccination Act made free vaccination available, and a report of the Select Committee on the Health of the Towns exposed squalid living conditions in many industrial areas and recommended the creation of district boards of health. The Chimney Sweeps Act came into force, prohibiting any child under the age of 16 years being apprenticed, and any person under 21 being compelled or knowingly allowed to ascend or descend a chimney or flue for sweeping, cleaning or coring. A Grammar Schools Act promoted the teaching of modern and commercial subjects.
It’s interesting isn’t it – some things hardly change – the issues of 1840 were pretty much the same as today, Brexit notwithstanding. Education, health, employment rights, apprenticeships, living conditions, housing - the issues are much the same although the detail is different. It may not be the mills, factories and chimneys that concern us now, but the low wages that keep some 21st century Londoners below the poverty line.
As a parish this year we are raising money for Crisis at Christmas and are trying to do our bit: To pay for one homeless place for a night, costs £26.08. What can you do to make a difference in this world? To your neighbour or the planet? We are some of the richest people in the world. So the range of financial diversity around us, with poverty and wealth cheek by jowl, makes Christmas as Dickensian as it was in 1840, both socially and sociologically.
But there is hope: for while we are the problem, through Christ’s love and forgiveness, we are also the solution.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
This final verse comes at the end of an idealisation of Christmas that we love: 500 people attended our Christingle Services this afternoon. We love the baby Jesus, but Jesus didn’t remain a defenceless baby, he grew up to be our saviour. We need saving: that’s the bottom line.
The most watched Christmas programme on TV tomorrow will be, believe it or not, the Queen’s speech. Her Christmas message trumps everyone else’s. And she certainly trumps Trump! A few years ago she said this:
Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves - from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person - neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.
This comes about through the coming of Christ to each and every one of us - the birth of the saviour in our own hearts. Christmas isn’t about what happened in the Little Town of Bethlehem 2000, or even 200 years ago – it is about what happens here and now, in us. On this day, on any and every day, we can pray, with Bishop Philips Brooks, that the little town of Bethlehem be not, far away, but in our own hearts. Bethlehem can be in our hearts, as a place from where we call on Christ to come to us, abide with us and truly be our Lord Emmanuel. So let there be room in our hearts this Christmas for Christ to be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels,
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield 24/12/17