In August 1865, an Episcopal priest from Philadelphia by the name of Phillips Brooks embarked upon an extended trip to Europe and the Holy Land.
On Christmas Eve Brooks joined in worship at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem. The service, which lasted five hours, made an indelible impression on his life. This “low church” Anglican experienced worship as he had never known before. The priests dressed in gold vestments. Incense clouds filled the church. The choir sang chants that dated back over a thousand years. The worship that evening was a glimpse of heaven on earth.
When Brooks left the church, he spent some time in reflection on all he had experienced. Although Bethlehem was a plain, ordinary town covered in the night’s darkness, Brooks realized it was here where the Son of God had been born. He captured that insight in a song he wrote three years later (O Little Town of Bethlehem) with the words, “but in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light.”
Phillips Brooks had it right. There is no place too dark, too small, too ordinary, too troubled or too insignificant where God cannot come. After all, God came to Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
There is nothing pretentious or outstanding about Bethlehem, whose name means “house of bread.” It probably got that name for its fertile fields within the desert. Actually, there were two towns named Bethlehem. The one of lesser importance, Bethlehem Zeblun, was located in the region of Zebulun, seven miles north of Nazareth. The other, Bethlehem Ephrathah, was situated six miles southeast of Jerusalem.
Bethlehem was the burial place of Rachel (Genesis 35:19), the wife of Isaac. It also was the birthplace of Naomi in the Book of Ruth (Ruth 1:1). You may remember that Ruth met Boaz in Bethlehem (Ruth 3 and 4), and it was here that Ruth’s grandchild David was born (1 Samuel 16:1). It was this last event that brought Bethlehem more and more prominence in the Old Testament prophecies, as illustrated in Micah 5:2: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
From insignificance comes greatness-that’s what the prophet is saying. Out of ordinary, little Bethlehem will come something so wonderful that it will change the world forever. Hard to believe, isn’t it? It’s much like when the Wright brothers made their flight from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. As the news of the successful flight spread, a disbelieving cynic said, “I don’t believe it. Nobody’s ever going to fly, and if they do, it won’t be anybody from Dayton, Ohio.”
Well, 2,000 years ago Bethlehem was the Dayton of its day. Now, 2,000 years later, all eyes are on this town. Pilgrims from all over the world flock to Bethlehem every year to celebrate the birth of the Jesus who literally divides history between B.C. and A.D.
Certainly the town of Bethlehem was not ready for this earth-shaking event. No one expected the Messiah to come to such an unlikely place at such an unlikely time of the year. After all, it was census time. People were too busy being counted. Tax rolls had to be updated. So you can understand why people were not ready for God to come among them.
The innkeeper in the town was not ready. His house was full of important people with gold in their purses, and there was no room for the humble carpenter of Nazareth and his very pregnant and weary wife.
King Herod was not ready. His fearful reign could not tolerate the possibility of anyone, even a child, who might prove a rival for his throne. So fearful and anxious was Herod about this baby that he ordered all the children in the town under the age of two to be killed, hoping thereby to kill the newborn king.
The religious leaders of the time were not ready. They longed for a Messiah who would come in power with the scepter of David in his hand and slay the enemy. They were too obsessed with rites and ceremonies, with prestige and position to be concerned about the birth of a child in a stable.
Wasn’t anybody ready? I wonder.
In painful language, Dostoevsky in The House of the Dead described the coming of Christmas day to a Siberian labour camp. It was a dingy little settlement among frozen wastelands. From the grim prison at one end of a single muddy street the convicts peered through barred windows at the small cathedral on a hill at the other side of town. The bells rang merrily as that Christmas dawn arrived, and villagers trooped in happy procession to the early morning church service.
It was Christ’s mass, Christmas. “But not for us, who are cut off from all humanity,” they thought. The ragged prisoners wept, huddled together for comfort from the cold. Finally, when the long cathedral service had ended, a priest came to the prison, set up a crude altar and began the service of worship.
“Now God has come to us!” the convicts shouted in surprised joy.
“Oh, yes,” replied the priest. “This is where he lives all year long. You see, he goes to the cathedral only on special occasions.”
This is what Bethlehem is trying to tell us today. God actually lives where we really live, no matter where we live, smallest village or largest city. We’d better be ready!
When the Saviour came and news circulated abroad, a disbelieving cynic said, “I don’t believe it. No Saviour is ever going to come, and if he did, it wouldn’t be anyone born in Bethlehem.”
Well then, what if the Saviour of the world were born in our city, in our church, in our hearts?
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessing of his heaven.
Where meek souls will receive him still
the dear Christ enters in.
–Rev. Stanley J. Krempa, “On Christmas, Remember the Greatest Gifts Are Free,” in Pulpit Resource, Dec. 20, 1998, p. 50
Several years after his trip to the Holy Land, in 1869 Phillips Brooks became rector of Trinity Church in Boston, where he remained for 22 years. During those years, large congregations filled that massive church to hear Brooks preach. He emphasized Christian humanism, which combined a passion for Christ and compassion for people. Employing a clear yet undogmatic style of preaching, he won the confidence and affection of all who came in contact with him. Two years after being elected Bishop of Massachusetts in 1891, Phillips Brooks died of heart failure. His funeral was attended by thousands of people. Tributes poured in from all over the world.
Maybe, though, a small girl paid him the highest tribute. The mother of this five-year-old girl entered the room where her daughter was playing and said tearfully to her, “Bishop Brooks has gone to heaven.”
“Oh, Mama,” the little girl replied, “how happy the angels will be!” (“O Little Town of Bethlehem: The Story Behind the Song,” by Joanne Sloan, in Decision, Dec. 1993, p. 30).
This Christmas, let Christ be born in your life. Let Christ enter into your heart. Let Christ fill you with his love. Let him embrace you with grace. Let joy, peace and mercy be God’s gift to you. For the God who was born in Bethlehem wants to be born in you. Will you let him? Will you receive him? Will you welcome him? Will you adore him? Will you give your life to him? Pour out your heart for him?
Let the words of Phillips Brooks be yours today:
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel! (Common Praise, Hymn 120)
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont