“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
On Christmas Eve, 1865, Phillip Brooks stood in a shepherds’ field outside the little town of Bethlehem. Weary from pastoring a church during the Civil War and disheartened by the assassination of President Lincoln, whose funeral message he had delivered that spring, Brooks chose Bethlehem as a place to retreat.
As stars twinkled overhead, Brooks experienced an overwhelming sense of the very first Christmas. Though greatly moved by the emotion of his experience, Brooks was unable to convey it to his congregation. Three years later, he captured the event in a poem that he gave to his organist, Lewis Redner. Although inspired, Redner couldn’t translate the lines to music.
However, on Christmas Day 1868, Redner awoke with the melody and harmony in his head, calling it a “gift from heaven.” That Christmas, when the thirty-six children in Brook’s Sunday school class sang the new carol, the little town of Bethlehem was visited once again and what happened there was born in hearts for Christmases to come.
Perhaps Brooks’ “dark streets” and Bethlehem sabbatical enabled him to write some of the most profound lines of any Christmas carol. For “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” is a timeless message.
Jesus was—and is—the hope of all the years. Jews longed and hoped for the Messiah who was prophesied in Isaiah 9:2: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” And He would arrive in none other than a little town. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)
Thousands of years later, we too long for Someone to light our darkened streets and meet our hopes and fears. Sometimes it may feel like we’re walking in darkness, loneliness, and the shadow of death. We long and hope for Messiah, Immanuel, God with us.
Thankfully, the One who was born in a small middle eastern village can also be born in our hearts. For where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in. This season, let “O Little Town of Bethlehem” be the carol that reminds you to retreat to Bethlehem for rest and prepare your heart to receive the wondrous Gift and blessing. How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
Receive His wondrous gift and the promise made in 2 Corinthians 4:6:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, You are our Life and Light. We are called out of darkness into Your wonderful, true, light. Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, Immanuel, God with us. Thank you that in the darkened places of our lives Your everlasting Light shines on our pathway. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel! (John 1:9, 1 Peter 2:9, Psalm 89:15, Matt. 1:23, Isaiah 7:14)
Ann Stewart is the mother of two and the author of Preparing My Heart for Advent: A Spiritual Pilgrimage for the Christmas Season and originator of the Preparing My Heart Bible studies. You can find her writing at Preparing My Heart.