Article of the week: The hopes and fears of all the years

28 November 2020


Four people have chosen a carol to reflect on during Advent. Major David Emery begins the series with ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ 

PHILLIPS Brooks, a former butcher turned priest, set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1865. On Christmas Eve he travelled the six miles from Jerusalem to sit in a field overlooking Bethlehem – then just a small village. Nightfall had arrived as he imagined the glory of the angelic choir bursting into praise while announcing that the Saviour of the world was born.

Such was the impact of that night that some three years later he penned the verses of his famous carol ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ (SASB 118), which was inspired by Micah 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.’

Another Bethlehem, not in the Holy Land but in Carmarthenshire, Wales, is also a popular destination for visitors in the run-up to Christmas. The purpose of these pilgrims is not to sit on the hillside and imagine the angelic choir’s announcement but to queue up  outside the rural post office and get a Bethlehem postmark embossed on their Christmas card envelopes. The novelty postmark is their goal, and a clear, legible inking will suffice. Alas, the significance of the events at Jesus’ actual birth location can be as far from their minds as the two Bethlehems are apart in miles.

Brooks’s words have been set to different melodies over the years, all of which remain popular among carol singers and listeners alike. The simple story of that first Christmas is retold in stanzas that draw people into the atmospheric moments that Brooks must have experienced on that dark Bethlehem hillside back in 1865. The picture is painted with an alarming imagery that makes his poetry stick in the memory, all the time accompanied by piercingly profound sentences explaining incarnational theology.

One wonders how many carol singers last Christmas could have imagined what 2020 would be like. Today we may wonder whether the restrictions that might be in place during the Advent weeks will impact on the number of postmarks obtained from Bethlehem in Carmarthenshire. More importantly, we might ask: Will the words of this well-known and widely sung carol echo through people’s lives this Christmas, not just as poetry but as divine truth?

There are other questions you and I must ask ourselves on the inevitable journey towards our Bethlehem experience this year. Will you travel as
a true pilgrim? If so, what is it that you wish or need to obtain from your visit? Will your Christmas be a journey to a place that does not hold the genuine experience, with a ‘postmark’ to compensate you? Will you receive from God ‘the blessings of his Heaven’ that he ‘imparts to human hearts’ by encountering the Christ child in such a way that impacts all your hopes and fears?

Brooks confidently assures both articulator and audience that whatever one’s plea is, it can be resolved by an encounter with ‘the dear Christ’ – provided it is enacted in a spirit of meekness, thus enabling an infusion of the Divine into everyday life. Amazingly, such an encounter transcends time by the promise that there will be resolutions to the ‘hopes and fears of all the years’.

In other words the aspirations and concerns of one’s whole life are answered by the holy birth, for the Christ who is born of Mary is the Saviour, Jesus, who is ‘the same yesterday and today and for ever’ (Hebrews 13:8).

Jaw-dropping eternal truths of ‘Ebenezer’ (see 1 Samuel 7:12) and ‘Immanuel’ (see Matthew 1:23) filter through the carol, bringing us as pilgrims to a point of decision. Will we pray the benedictory prayer of the last verse personally and collectively? The challenge of this prayer demands we decide. Will we be a Bethlehem visitor? Or will we be a pilgrim, stepping out into the unknown, confident that our lives are going someplace – forward from Bethlehem into the real challenges of this Christmas and beyond?


O holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin, and enter in,

Be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell;

O come to us, abide with us,

Our Lord Immanuel.





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