Christ Church Ridley Park
Year AÂ Christmas Eve/Day
December 24/25Â 2010
â€œâ€¦the shepherds said to one another, â€œLet us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.â€
And so they ventured out in search of the sign, to find a child wrapped in bands of cloth.
Perhaps it was a welcome diversion from the tedium, the long hours of sheep sittingâ€¦ back in the days before ESPN, and I-phones, and headphones, and computers.
We moderns can scarcely imagine such profound quiet as the shepherds knew. No whine of truck tires from I-95, no rumble of US Air jets from nearby Philadelphia airport.Â No radios, no car alarms, no sirens, no television.
Only the silenceâ€¦
A young Episcopal minister named Phillips Brooks, then 30 years old and recently ordained, found himself profoundly affected by his visit to Bethlehem. The quiet of the place of nativity speak to some yet inarticulate place in his soul.
The year was 1865. Brooks had taken a sabbatical, a full year abroad, to visit the Holy Land, as well as other destinations. He would travel again to Bethlehem the following year, taking another break from his duties as rector of Holy Trinity, Philadelphia. He felt compelled to return to moonlit sky of Palestine and to make his pilgrimage once again, eager to conjure the scene in his mindâ€™s eyeâ€¦the young mother and her newborn, wrapped in a blanket of stars, carefully watched over by shepherds and sheep, and the hosts of heaven.
Over the next couple of years the image of the stillness of Bethlehem continued to sift â€“ and to soothe. It must have been balm to go to such a place in the mindâ€™s eye. A young nation had been through hell, suffering a horrendous civil war that had claimed 620,000 lives. Â Men had perished by gun and sword, no doubt some of them husbands and fathers, sons of parishioners. The nation had plunged into even more trauma and uncertainly when President Lincoln had been shot.
Then in 1868, casting about for a childrenâ€™s lesson for that Christmas, suddenly it came to himâ€¦ what he needed to say to these children whose fragile psyches must still have been suffering the collective wounds of war.
O little town of Bethelehem,
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.
Brooks had been carrying around the image of that little town as a kind of talisman, turning it over and over, until it became a vision of a world into which would enter to enjoy the wondrous gift God, imparting to human hearts the blessings of his heaven, a world in which hopes and fears might be met.
After three years and a brief labor of hours, the words slid gracefully onto paper.Â He offered them up to his organist, Lewis Redner, and gave him the job of swaddling them with tune. Redner set about the task immediately, only to lose the thread. Frustrated he went to bed. Then in the middle of the night he awoke. Like a present under the tree the melody just appeared the well known tune we will sing as we kneel at communion in a short while.
â€œO little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.â€
So it is that we come to our little sanctuary of Christ Church each Christmas yearning to find that stillness of Bethlehem and the Holy Family once again. We who comply with the difficult demands of life, all the counting, all the unreasonable emperors, the stress of obligations, laying on us heavy burdens that threaten to crush us.
We come to enter that realm hoping that all our fears â€“ of war and terror, of hardship and loss and human cussedness can be met by the hope and promise of something and someone stronger than ourselves â€“ someone who is genuinely, one hundred percent for us, not against us, someone who will take our side, who will champion the poor, who will help us carry that weight when we donâ€™t know if we have the strength to take another step.
Bethlehem is the place we come, looking for that shelter from the storm, where we are reassured that all fears and our hopes are met and that Godâ€™s incarnate love might surprise us with an inner strength greater than anything we could have asked or have imagined.
And so to this magical place of Bethlehem we make our way once again â€“ a place where peace reigns and love may conquer allâ€¦ a place of justice.Â After decking the halls, trimming the tree, and wrapping the gifts, we come to make ready to make a place for the birth of something new, a holy surprise imparting the blessings of heaven.
Here in this little town of Bethlehem we are reminded all over again that God is indeed now with us â€“ and for us â€“ we who are afraid.
This evening we come to hear the story all over again, and to be reassured. In all the mean and lowly estate that is our life and our world, amidst broken promises and treaties unfulfilled, God deigns to enter into our lives in a way we could have never have scarcely imagined, the â€œexaltation of humanityâ€ through the birth of the divine in our midst.
If your humanity needs a little lifting up and a little exalting this night, then you have come to the right place, a place to make room for the miracle of life and all the crazy wonderful things God can yet do in our world.
So come and worship and take a place at the childâ€™s side. The shepherds are happy to move over so you, too, can have a peak, and see what all the fuss was about up in heaven:
â€œâ€¦see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.â€ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, (raucously, I imagine) â€œGlory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!â€
Itâ€™s all good â€“ and itâ€™s a place we can come any time we need a little encouragement, and to be reassured that in the stillness of such a holy place within ourselves, when God is with us, there is no burden we cannot carry and no mountain we cannot climb.