How silently, how silently

“After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem,” wrote Rev Philip Brooks of Philadelphia in December 1865.  “It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine...Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here)...As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.”

Three years later, he wrote the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for the Christmas service of Holy Trinity in Boston, where he was now Bishop. After the service, it was reprinted on leaflets and sold in a little book store on Chestnut St. By 1892 it was included in America's Episcopal hymnal.

Among the usual carols sung at Christmas, this one is my favourite. It's romantic, lyrical, magical. It sounds like a song from Midsummer Night's Dream. You can see in it Bethlehem in gorgeous miniature, where mortals sleep under a canopy of spinning stars.

O little town of Bethlehem,
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

For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King,
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
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.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell,
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.