Lady Pastor: Hymn carries our hearts to holy Bethlehem

Christmas Day is here, and folks are celebrating in a variety of ways across a multitude of locations. Some are visiting family in other states. Others are sticking close to home. There are people who, for unexpected reasons, are spending the day in a hotel or hospital room. There are still others who are scheduled to work.

There are many different physical places where people are spending this holy day. But there is a shared spot where all our hearts are pulled. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we are invited to move back in time together.

We travel through many eras, across countless miles, to a location so sacred and special that there is room enough for all to gather there. We trek to Bethlehem and crowd together around a manger holding a tiny newborn baby.

The hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem" has been weaving its way around my heart since Advent began. I have always liked the tune and the words, and the more I learn about its history, the more I appreciate it.

The text of the hymn was originally written by an Episcopal priest in Philadelphia named Rev. Phillips Brooks. The concept was inspired by Rev. Brooks' trip to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 1865. He and his traveling partners journeyed on horseback under the stars that evening from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.


Brooks was profoundly impacted by his time spent so close to the birthplace of Jesus.

A few years later, he composed hymn verses about the experience, and then he invited the church organist, Lewis Redner, to write a corresponding tune.

The hope was that the new hymn could then be performed at the annual Christmas Sunday School service. Interestingly, neither Brooks nor Redner believed the hymn would have a life beyond that single church program on Christmas Day 1868!

There are a variety of reasons the hymn has remained beloved by so many individuals, congregations, and across denominational lines.

One aspect of the hymn that is so powerful to me is the way I feel transported to Bethlehem whenever I hear it! Through the song, the setting of Jesus' birth comes alive.

A line from the final verse reads as follows: "O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today."

As we sing these words, we ask Jesus to be near, to be born within us, to abide in our hearts and lives anew. His actual birth was long ago and far away, but we still have access to that place and time. Through God's word. Through family traditions and Christmas programs. Through hymns and other songs of praise.

Wherever you are today, take a few moments to travel to Bethlehem. Bring greetings to Mary and Joseph. Swap stories with the shepherds. And then kneel down for a bit beside the baby lying in the manger. May you feel his nearness in all aspects of your life throughout the year ahead.


The Lady Pastor is a weekly column by Emily Carson, a Lutheran pastor in Stewartville. Visit her blog at: .

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