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Rev. John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column


“Oh, little town of Bethlehem”

 Christmas for many is always a tender memory to shoulder. I would imagine it especially hard for the families across the years who celebrated the first Christmas without a special loved one.

Christmas of 1865 must have been sad and awesome. In such a vacuum, Phillips Brooks began one of my favorite carols: “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” based upon God’s promises from the prophet Micah (5:12)—“Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are one of the little towns of Judah, but from you I will bring a ruler for Israel, whose family line goes back to ancient times.”  Micah was one of the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible and a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. Micah (of 8th century B.C.) was from southwest Judah, who prophesied during the reigns of kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah. Micah’s messages were directed chiefly toward Jerusalem. The carol was finished by 1868.

Brooks was born in Boston, Mass., in 1835 and died there in 1893. In the mid-while, he was educated at Harvard, then here at Alexandria, to train for the priesthood at Virginia Episcopal. Ordained and off to Philadelphia, Pa., his career was launched: pastor, evangelist, professor, author and eventually Bishop of the Episcopal Church (1891). He was a giant of a man once standing over six feet tall, and weighing in at 300 pounds.

After his pastorate in “Philly,” he traveled abroad, visiting the Holy Land wherein he was inspired toward his most famous hymn. By the time of installment as pastor of Trinity, Boston, he’d finished the tune which was laid to music by conductor Lewis H. Redner (1831, Philadelphia—August 29, 1908, Atlantic City, N.J.), an American musician, actually best-known thanks to that popular Christmas carol, originally “St. Louis.” The name was changed to “Bethlehem”: an edit made for the choir stalls and pews of eternity. This carol is now in almost every contemporary hymnal published.

I would imagine that Brooks, though far from home, was still being affected by the events of the end of America’s Civil War.

“Oh, 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

Oh morning stars together, proclaim thy holy birth.

And praises sing to God the king, and peace to men on earth.

Oh, 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.”

My first New England Christmas, I attended an advent concert in the sanctuary of Boston’s old Trinity Church, somewhat lonesome, yet eager to be inspired by the power of vocal music and pipe organ. My family had remained behind in northwest Tennessee when I was called to the United Parish in Brookline, MA. The family joined me after school let out that following spring. One of the sopranos in our Brookline choir had invited me to attend the concert as she was to be a featured soloist.

Trinity is a handsome wood, brick, stone and concrete cathedral of Romanesque architecture, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson (1838, St. James Parish, La.—April 27, 1886, Brookline, Mass.) where now some 4,000 households call it their church home. 

I am so addicted to organ music that my aloneness was melted by the 113 ranks totaling over 7,000 pipes, Boston’s second-largest organ. The Trinity Organ, in fact, comprises two organs: The Chancel Organ (at the front of the church, built in 1963, and renewed in 2007), the primary role of which is accompanying the choir, and the Nave Organ (at the rear of the church in the west gallery), built by the renowned Ernest M. Skinner in 1926 (10 or so years older than the Skinner organ at Brookline) and restored in 2019. Together, these instruments are used in a variety of ways in worship and for recitals. Organists play both the Chancel and Nave organs from a single console in the chancel.

That cathedral is so awesome, the music so overwhelming, I found Christmas anew. All my former wilting spirit was lifted. I was reminded that even in such a large and beautiful place, with such architectural grandeur and music, that a baby in a bed of straw could still be the star event.

 Note: Pastor John Howard Farmer, of the Irvington Baptist Church, who has occupied Reflections space in the Record for almost 30 years, is retiring. His last article “It is Time,” will appear as the Rappahannock Record closes for the Christmas Holiday.

Meanwhile, the Record is gathering “Reflections on Reflections.” Anyone who would like to comment on their favorite column or passage, what the column has meant personally, or remarks for Pastor John are encouraged to submit them to [email protected], send to Rappahannock Record, P. O. Box 400, Kilmarnock, VA 22482, or deliver them to the Record office at 27 North Main Street, Kilmarnock.

Rappahannock Record Staff
Rappahannock Record Staff
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