O Little Town of Bethlehem — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: Psalm 126:1-3
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
2 Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Micah 5:2
2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

Reflection: O Little Town of Bethlehem — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

The endearing carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, was written in 1868 for the Sunday School children of Philadelphia’s Church of the Holy Trinity. Phillips Brooks, rector of Holy Trinity wrote the lyrics and Lewis H. Redner, church organist, contributed the music.

Phillips Brooks was born in Boston, attended Harvard University, and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1859. Brooks relocated to Philadelphia where he served as rector for Church of the Advent for three years before moving to Holy Trinity shortly after the start of the American Civil War.

Brooks preached against slavery, ministered to African American troops, and advocated for granting equal rights to freedmen. When the funeral train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s casket stopped in Philadelphia, Brooks was selected to deliver the local eulogy.

Following those tumultuous years, in August 1865, the church sent Brooks abroad for a year where he traveled through Europe and arrived in the Holy Land in December.

After two weeks in Jerusalem, he traveled on horseback out to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. There Brooks took part in the Christmas Eve service at the ancient basilica built over the traditional location of the Nativity. He was so moved by the experience that he wrote about it to the congregation back in Philadelphia.

I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God…

The memory of visiting Bethlehem stayed with him, and three years later, he wrote the lyrics to O Little Town of Bethlehem for the church Christmas service in 1868. You can hear the peaceful tranquility of his experience expressed in the opening stanza.

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by

Brooks gave his lyrics to organist Lewis Redner, asking him to compose a tune. Redner was occupied with preparations for the Christmas service and had not written the tune by Saturday night. Stressed about the performance the next day, he fell asleep, only to be awakened by what he said was an angel whispering the tune in his ear. Redner commented, “Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

The carol has endured long since then for its sanguine simplicity and because it reminds us of the profound meaning of the birth of a child in the little town of Bethlehem.

O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today!

Listen: Little Town by Amy Grant
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down; touch the mountains, and they shall smoke. — Psalm 144.5

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Chronicles 22-23  (Listen 6:51)
Psalms 126-128 (Listen 1:58)

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Representative Combat

Scripture Focus: Micah 5.1b-2
…They will strike Israel’s ruler 
on the cheek with a rod. 

2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, 
though you are small among the clans of Judah, 
out of you will come for me 
one who will be ruler over Israel, 
whose origins are from of old, 
from ancient times.”

Reflection: Representative Combat
By John Tillman

When Elon Musk challenged Putin to a fight over Ukraine, few thought, “That’s a good idea.” And it’s not just because we were afraid Musk might lose. In our individualistic society, we are unlikely to agree that one person can represent us as a group.

People strongly identified with their nation, their king, or their gods in less individualistic eras. This is one of the reasons representative combat made more sense in those cultures. We see this in the example of David fighting Goliath.

In the Bible, names of people or places are often used as an appellation for the entire nation or group. They might be called, Israel, Judah, David, the root of Jesse, Jerusalem, Zion, Samaria, the name of the current king, etc. The leader or city was the nation and the nation was the leader or city. When tribes revolted against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, they said, “What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son?” (1 Kings 12.16) It was a ripping apart—a separation of identities.

We still use names this way linguistically but I doubt we feel as unified emotionally. We still refer to the United States as Washington, the White House, or the name of the current president. We are likely to refer to other countries using similar appellations: Moscow, Downing Street, Macron… But if a leader is disrespected, “struck on the cheek with a rod,” we might be angry on his or her behalf but most wouldn’t feel as if we were struck. Language changes slowly. Hearts change in an instant. Culture changes somewhere in between.

When we do choose a representative in important matters we want a “winner.” We want someone important, impressive, and powerful to show up. Micah’s description of a ruler coming from the humble town of Bethlehem is an upending of that.

If we are to have any part in God’s kingdom, we must bind our identity to Jesse’s son, the humble Jesus, born in Bethlehem. Jesus is our representative, our “David,” the true Israel—the one who struggles and overcomes in an unexpected, upside-down way. If the appellation, “Christian” applies, then when Jesus is struck on the cheek, we are. When Jesus dies, crucified, we die. When Jesus slays the Goliath of sin and death, we rout them at his side.

If we hesitate to identify with Jesus, humble and crucified, nothing else he did will be credited to us.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
My mouth shall recount your mighty acts and saving deeds all day long; though I cannot know the number of them. — Psalm 71.15

Today’s Readings
Micah 5 (Listen – 2:21)
John 21 (Listen – 3:58)

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He comes to the victims and perpetrators of war and conflict, bringing them peace.
Unto us, he comes.


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As Christians, it is more important that we realize that we need a hero than that we pledge to be one.


Unto Us, He Comes — Hope of Advent

Scripture Focus: Micah 5.2-5
2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, 
though you are small among the clans of Judah, 
out of you will come for me 
one who will be ruler over Israel, 
whose origins are from of old, 
from ancient times.” 
3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned 
until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, 
and the rest of his brothers return 
to join the Israelites. 
4 He will stand and shepherd his flock 
in the strength of the Lord, 
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. 
And they will live securely, for then his greatness 
will reach to the ends of the earth. 
5 And he will be our peace 

Reflection: Unto Us, He Comes — Hope of Advent
By John Tillman

Confronted by Magi seeking one “born king of the Jews,” Herod commands scholars and experts to give him an answer about the location of the birth of the Messiah. The scholar’s respond by referencing today’s passage. Herod passes this information on to the Magi.

We don’t know exactly where the Magi were from. Scripture simply says, “the East.” Symbolically, the Magi represent the entire unbelieving Gentile world but most scholars think they were probably Zorastrian priests of Persia and Media (Modern day Iran). The term “magi” would have applied to Daniel in his service to the kings of Babylon and Persia. This priestly class were advisors and counselors of kings.

If scholars are correct about the Magi’s origin, it may be the gleams of knowledge they had about this “king of the Jews” trickled down to them from the writings or influence of exiled Jews such as Daniel or Esther. 

Regardless of what light they had when they started their journey, God revealed more and more to them until they beheld the light of Christ directly, face to face. 

Advent is a time when all the world is seeking, waiting, for light. The sinking of the world into dark and the return of the light after the darkest point are common to all humanity.

The Bible tells us that God makes himself known to all people through the creation he has made. (Psalm 19.1-6) Paul goes so far as to say this revelation is sufficient to leave them “without excuse” in rejecting God. (Romans 1.19-20) To those who seek the light, more light is given. 

We celebrate Christmas at this season not for historical reasons but for pedagogical reasons. The movements of the heavens tell a Heavenly story in which Christ comes in at our darkest point to turn the world back to the light.

Micah, in telling us where Christ comes from, also tells us who he comes to:
He comes to the small, discounted for their weakness, bringing strength.
He comes to those who have been dominated, lifting their heads and standing with them.
He comes to the abandoned, bringing reconciliation.
He comes to the exiled, pointing the way to a new home.
He comes to the leaderless, bringing guidance.
He comes to the insecure, bringing protection.
He comes to the victims and perpetrators of war and conflict, bringing them peace.

Unto us, he comes.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Cry of the Church
Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Micah 5 (Listen – 2:21)
Luke 14 (Listen – 4:36)

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