Sunday, December 21, 2008

Oh little town... About Philips Brooks and his little hymn.

Earlier this week at church we had a carol sing. Just a casual night of singing the greatest hits of Christmas. People who know me well know that the one song that "gets to me" is "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem."

I looked at the hymnal as we got ready to sing this song and saw the author's name for the very first time. Phillips Brooks.

Phillips Brooks? Really now.

I was suddenly struck with recognition of the name. I pass a statue of him every time I drive through North Andover, Massachusetts and the green there. Phillips Brooks.

I tied the name on the statue in my head to the man, and figured there couldn't be any OTHER Phillips Brooks running around out there who might have something to do with North Andover, Massachusetts or Hymns of the Christian Church. There had to be some interesting history, something to think about there.

I did a little digging into who the man was behind the hymn. Wikipedia is the most fun source. Finding out that his grandfather founded Phillips Academy (and he was named after the man) and that Endicott Peabody (two names that are entrenched in the history of northeatern Massachusetts) named Brooks School for him, which is a couple miles away from my house were interesting facts.

I had no idea that he was the bishop of the Episcopal Church of Massachusetts. I had no idea that he was a heavyweight in philosophical and religious identity here in Massachusetts, opposing slavery and strongly siding with Lincoln in the abolitionist movements in American History. When he died, thousands of mourners poured out to grieve him and celebrate his life. And to me, he was just a name on a statue that I drove past.

And I didn't realize his connection to something very close to my heart. This man wrote the one song that brings me to deep and profound ponderances and tears during Christmas.

"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

That one line always makes me cry. The concepts of what was crouching towards Bethlehem that Christmas night. The journey that Joseph made with his not-yet wife but knocked-up fiance Mary. The fears. The confusion. The uncertainty. The "you've got to be kidding me" kinds of concepts surrounding the birth of a once and future king.

And Phillips Brooks sums it all up for us all in one little hymn. The darkest and saddest of the Christmas songs. Not the trumpeting angels of "Joy to the World" and "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing." The anticipation and confusion of the holiday and impending birth of the savior are summed up so amazingly in this one little song.

Wow. What a sudden epiphany for me this late in life, to suddenly connect a statue of a man that I drive past on a green to the song that speaks most strongly to me during the Advent Season.

It brings me to tears. It rocks my world. That one little hymn, carol, Christmas song, means so much to me that I cannot explain why. And I am so glad to finally and quite accidentally learn about its author.

At this late point in the Advent Season... on this cold and snow, dark and quiet night, I ponder deeply the meaning of what is happening at this time of year. Preparing my own heart for the welcoming of the Christ Child, I ask you to look at your life, and consider what the hopes and fears of all the years are right now for you.

Are you afraid for you job?

Afraid of money problems? Losing your home?

Are you sad, do you feel deeply lonely and lost?

Yes. We all do. We really do. But there was, and I do believe this deeply, there was a young lady who had a baby and instead of having him in a hospital she had him in a stable. And on that dark and quiet night, that sad and lonely moment, the world changed.

Lives changed.

Your life changed.

And the hopes and fears of all the years were focused upon that one little city, that one little shed. And we all prepare for that moment this time of year.

Forget everything else. Just think about that hymn. This hymn. That song, this moment.

Happy Advent. May your heart begin to be filled. Make your heart meek. Receive.

Happy Advent indeed.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortlas sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is giv'n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav'n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.

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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