Boston-born Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) grew up in a hymn-loving home. He and his brothers memorized a hymn every week and recited the words for their parents on Sunday evenings. His father kept a notebook of his sons’ hymn memorizations. One biographer wrote, “These hymns Phillips carried in his mind as so much mental and spiritual furniture…” Is it any wonder, then, that Phillips would one day jot down words of a new hymn that would be sung for generations?
After graduating from Harvard, Brooks had every intention of becoming a teacher, but changed direction and went to seminary instead. He became an Episcopal priest, serving two churches in Philadelphia and promoting the cause of the Union Army throughout the Civil War.
In December, 1865, shortly after his 30th birthday, Brooks went on a memorable trip to the Holy Land. The young priest spent Christmas Eve that year in a 5-hour worship service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Three years later, Father Brooks needed a hymn for his Sunday school Christmas program. Reflecting on his 1865 trip, he penned the simple verses in one sitting and handed them to his organist, Lewis Redner, to write a melody in time for the service. The melody was composed, Redner later confessed, “in great haste and under great pressure.” Neither man could have anticipated that their creation, “O, LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM,” would become a popular Christmas hymn.
A PROGRESSIVE PASTOR FINDS HIS VOICE
1865 was a significant year in Brooks’ life. That April, still in Philadelphia, the young priest gained national attention for the eulogy he delivered as the body of Abraham Lincoln lay in state at Independence Hall.
In that speech, Rev. Brooks dared to call out, not only the sin of slavery in the South, but the complicity of the North, and the on-going racism of the nation. He condemned “timid compromises” and “words of vague repentance.” He even noted that Lincoln had come late to emancipation, but gave him credit for risking change, proclaiming, “The new American nature must supplant the old. We must grow like our President …”
A few months later, in July, 1865, at the Commemoration Day program on Harvard Yard, famous speakers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Julia Ward Howe, addressed those who had assembled to remember their fallen classmates. Phillips Brooks was not invited to deliver a speech, but his brief prayer was so passionate and eloquent that it made an impression and propelled him to national fame.
At 6’4” and @300 pounds, Brooks was a giant of a man in more ways than one. After moving back to Boston to pastor Trinity Church, he become one of the leading progressive Christian intellectuals of his day, a proponent of religious freedom and social justice, and a charismatic orator. In 1891, Brooks was elected Bishop. When he died of a heart attack two years later at the age 57, thousands attended his funeral and more joined the procession to Mount Auburn Cemetery.
In 1910, a bronze statue of Phillips Brooks was unveiled at Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. He was depicted with cloaked Jesus standing behind him, a firm guiding hand on the pastor’s shoulder.
MEDITATION: HOW STILL WE SEE THEE LIE?
We might conclude that the young pastor who penned a description of Bethlehem as a place of deep stillness, dreamless sleep, silent stars, and wondering love had a good imagination. The stars may have been silent, but Bethlehem was most likely a riot of peevish strangers, gathered for the unhappy task of a government census. Did anyone sleep that night? Has there ever been peace in Bethlehem?
Only the lucky few who made extraordinary effort heard the angels sing and found, in the heart of Bethlehem’s frenzy, the holy happening, the Lamb of God, the Christmas rose. God slipped into the scene, almost lost in the crush and the rush.
And here we are again, full of anxiety and anticipation, oppressed by our lists of things yet to do and the heartbreaking state of the world. With any luck, we will have the good fortune to celebrate the sacred mystery and sing carols in sanctuaries decorated with greens, poinsettias, and candlelight, and enjoy a few happy hours with our loved ones.
The Bethlehem of the holy birth was our world in microcosm, with its inconvenient realities. The Good News is that God is with us where there is no room, no comfort, no peace. Right in the middle of the mess, not in some imagined silence, we find the Christ waving his tiny fists in the air. God is with us, even here, in the middle of the chaos.