Primate invites reflection on ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’

Photo: Udra11/Shutterstock
Published December 20, 2017

With the approach of Christmas, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, is inviting Canadian Anglicans to ponder the words of a well-known carol for what it says about events in our world, the significance of Bethlehem, the mystery of the Incarnation and the hope that Jesus may live in us.

In his annual Christmas reflection, released Wednesday, December 20, Hiltz notes that many Christmas services feature a carol sung by candlelight, typically “Silent Night.” He then invites the reader to reflect on “O Little Town of Bethlehem” instead.

Hiltz cites the biblical prophet Micah, who describes the coming, from Bethlehem, of “one who is to rule Israel,” who will be “the one of peace.” He then reflects on the words of the carol, written by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopalian priest. The peaceful Bethlehem of which the text speaks, Hiltz says, stands out as starkly different from the Bethlehem of today.

“Stark images of the massive Separation Wall come to mind, as do images of the heavily guarded check point through which people must pass in and out of the city,” Hiltz says.

Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank, sits behind the Israeli West Bank barrier, built by Israel after a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000.

The “hopes and fears” mentioned in the carol, Hiltz says, speak to the circumstances of the city’s current inhabitants, who live with the hope for an elusive peace and the fear “that developments such as the world has witnessed in recent weeks will escalate political tensions in their city, in Jerusalem, Gaza and throughout the Middle East.”

Protests, some of them violent, have followed an announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump December 6 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv.

“As we hold our candle and sing, we think of all those for whom this ‘little town’ is home, all those who know its history and cling to its destiny in the sight of God,” Hiltz says.

The next verse of the carol takes us into the manger where Christ was born. The text, the primate says, calls to mind the song of the angels, the adoration of the shepherds, Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and the pilgrims who gather there.

“As we hold our candle, we pray for all for whom this ‘little town’ is a point of departure or destination in pilgrimage, and for their safety and spiritual enrichment,” he says.

The song’s next verse then takes us to heaven and then swiftly down to Earth, Hiltz says, reminding us of the mystery of the Incarnation, of the Word being made flesh, of God coming to us in a way that is “disguised.”

The Incarnation, says Hiltz, “is quiet and kindly. It befriends and redeems the world. It reconciles us with God and with one another. It sanctifies and makes holy our lives and our work. As we hold our candle, we are blessed in hearing yet again this wonderful truth.”

The primate then quotes a Ghanaian prayer, that God “oil the hinges on the doors of our hearts that they may swing gently and easily to welcome him.” This prayer, he says, is a “lovely segue” to the carol’s final verse, which prays that Jesus may “be born in us” and “abide with us.”

This prayer, Hiltz says, “is the prayer of all those who in every generation come to know and love [Jesus]. It was the prayer of all those now numbered among ‘all ye citizens of heaven above.’ It was the prayer of our loved ones who are now in his nearer presence. As we hold our candle and remember them, we pray for ourselves that we may embrace his gospel of love for the world and endeavour to fashion our manner of living in accord with its truths and promises.”

The primate closes his reflection with a wish for those who, having heard his “case” for it, do choose to make “O Little Town of Bethlehem” the carol they sing by candlelight this Christmas.

“If you take up my invitation, I hope your experience, like mine, helps you to focus more closely on the text and the story it tells, and the reflections and prayers it summons out of you,” he says.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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