Hymns aren’t notorious for crossing the divide between church and popular culture. ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ are 2 examples that spring to my mind of successfully making that transition, but let’s face it that isn’t the norm is it? So when Phillips Brooks wrote the lyrics to ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ in 1868, little would he have known that a rendition by Cliff Richard to a tune written by Chris Eaton would take this hymn to number 11 in the charts back in1982.
The words of the hymn were inspired by Brooks’ own trip to Bethlehem three years earlier and what I love is the understated nature of the lyrics. Bethlehem isn’t just a town – it’s a little town complete with dark streets. It’s a town that is slumbering and certainly the picture Brooks paints in the first 4 lines is “nothing much happening here at the moment!” But this is swiftly followed by the word ‘Yet’ and what unfolds are the events of a night which would change the world forever, and, that little town of Bethlehem would be inextricably linked with the birth of the Messiah.
Note the focus here – there is no mention of shepherds, wise men or mangers – the focus is on the gift and remains on the gift. And this is where we move to my most favourite lines, “Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” God is in the detail. We too may feel ‘little’ perhaps insignificant, and that ‘nothing much happens here’ but God’s transforming love is offered to all.
This beautiful hymn never fails to move me for it is deeply powerful in its description of Emmanuel who chose to abide with us and still changes lives today.