A Meditation on “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem

Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem

Many years ago—in the ‘80s (seems long ago in the short span of my life)—I wrote monthly a little column about church music in the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, The Episcopal Times, edited by Barbara Braver. (Whew! I do have some memory left; it did exist, and Barbara was the editor.)

For the December edition one year, I wrote a wonderfully elitist and snobbish piece on the sentimentality of the tune we’ve all known since before we were born for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Its altered harmonies and that silly raised second on the fourth note of the melody are simply too much for a real musician to bear.

Of course, what I forgot when I wrote the pompous little stuff-shirt article was that I was in Phiips Brooks country (Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Boston, from 1869 until 1891, when he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts). Brooks wrote the words, and his organist while he was at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, Lewis Redner, wrote the tune.

It’s the only time in my life enough people read what I wrote to give me hell for it. Barbara Braver received letters for months afterward asking who I thought I was attacking a Boston icon.

Little did I know that one summer about 20 years later I would be in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with a group (mostly) of Lutherans from Texas singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in one of the great spiritual moments of my life.

So much for elitism.

(This, by the way, was my second trip to Bethlehem, the first with the Inter-Faith Peace Builders—part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation—in 2003, shortly after the fragile end of the Second Palestinian Intifada.)

Somewhere on some flash drive I have many pictures of the more recent trip. Many of them are from Bethlehem where we stayed for the largest portion of the ten days or so we were there.

One of the pictures that still startles me is of a young man in a car with a make-shift bloody bandage around his leg. The driver of the car stopped to tell us what we had just witnessed before he sped off to the hospital. We were on the rooftop garden of the building that houses the community center of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp on the south edge of Bethlehem (I’m pretty sure you didn’t know there is a refugee camp in Bethlehem for Palestinians whose homes were destroyed in 1948 as a result of the Nakba—yes, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren still live there.)

On the other side? Bethlehem.

On the other side? Bethlehem.

While we were there, the IDF (Defense? Force—one of the great oxymorons in world affairs) had discovered a Palestinian “terrorist” living in, or at least staying in, a home on the street below. They, of course, had to arrest him (or her), and sent several armed vehicles. There was some sort of altercation (I’m remembering all of this through old-man thinking), and shots were fired. The man whose picture I have was, I think, an innocent bystander.

But everyone was taking it in stride. Business as usual in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem. . . the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

That same flash drive has several pictures of me standing (dwarfed) by the Apartheid Wall as it bisects Bethlehem. I don’t even need to comment on that.

. . . in July 2004 the [International Court of Justice] determined that the Israeli government’s construction of the segregation wall in the occupied Palestinian West Bank was illegal. Even Thomas Buergenthal, the American judge who cast the lone negative vote. . .acknowledged that the Palestinians were under occupation and had the right to self-determination. . .the wall ravages many places along its devious route that are important to Christians. In addition to enclosing Bethlehem in one of its most notable intrusions. . . (Carter, Jimmy. Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006 (193-194)

We, the protectors (or is it the servants) of the Apartheid system in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, and in all of Israel and Palestine, have very little right to pretend to be the “meek souls” we will so mindlessly and carelessly sing about in our most sentimental goose-bumpy way for the next few days. Phillip Brooks, the great abolitionist preacher, would be horrified.

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous Gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

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