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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Over Jordan

Joshua 3.17
The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.

Psalm 126.2-3
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.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Reflection: Over Jordan
By John Tillman

Crossing the Jordan has been a spiritual metaphor for centuries, but it took special meaning for slaves in the American south. It symbolized an escape from slavery, shelter in place of homelessness, and fruitfulness in place of a barren desert.

In the story of Israel’s failure to enter due to fear, and their return in faith after wandering for 40 years, the Jordan symbolizes a place at which faith and courage are required. 

In the story of the transition from Moses to Joshua, from Elijah to Elisha, and from John the Baptist to Jesus, the Jordan symbolizes a change in leadership.

And of course, the Jordan represents entering the promised land, with Canaan standing in as the eternal land we are destined for in Heaven.

On one side of the river is the desert, the unforgiving land, the land of trials, the land of sin, the land of rebellion, the land of suffering.

On the other side of the river is the land that is promised, the land of blessing, the land of freedom, the land of rest, the land of satisfaction and plenty.

The Jordan also represents the final crossing of death—both a time of judgment and a time of cleansing. For Christians, the waters of the crossing hold no terror. We do not enter them alone. Someone else marches in with us. His nail-pierced feet touch the waters and they pile up, inviting us to cross without muddying our clothes.

We cross the Jordan not with priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, but with Christ, our High Priest. When we cross over the Jordan with Christ, the land has no enemies to be defeated. It has no cities to march around and no battles to be fought. For, there too, Christ has gone before us, preparing a place for us. It is there that we will be fed by the tree that grows in the river that comes from the throne of God. It is there that we will take from that tree healing for the nations.

Our home is over Jordan.” “Deep River” — Marian Anderson

It is over Jordan that our tears will be wiped away.

Prayer: The Morning Psalm
On the holy mountain stands the city he has founded; the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you, O City of our God. — Psalm 87.1-2

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

Today’s Readings
Joshua 3 (Listen – 2:45) 
Psalm 126-128 (Listen – 1:58)

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Read more about Christ: Temple, River, and City
Christ is our river, flowing as the Holy Spirit into our lives, into our cities, into our dead, dry, and poisoned environments.

Read more about The Staggering Dead and the Glory of God
One day, as Lazarus and our dear Christ, himself, our grave clothes will be untied (or “set aside” lyō in Greek). We will leave our grave clothes behind. That is the glory of God.