Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Which Christmas carol was penned on a bet?

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) has been called the greatest American preacher of the 19th Century.

During the Christmas season of 1867, Brooks was looking for a special carol for the children of Philadelphia's Holy Trinity Church to sing in their Christmas program, but he wasn't satisfied with the choices available. He bet his his organist, Lewis R. Redner, that he could write a better one.

He retired to his study, where he wrote the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem in a single evening.

Brooks gave Redner a copy of the words and asked him to compose a melody that would be easy for the children to sing. On the evening just before the program was to be given, Redner awakened suddenly from his sleep with the melody in his mind and quickly wrote it out.

Though Brooks set down the lyrics in an evening, the ideas and images had been planted two years earlier. During a trip to the Holy Land in 1865, Brooks had ridden on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. As he neared Bethlehem, Brooks had stopped among the shepherds on a hillside and looked down on the town, which lay still and peaceful below.

Later, Brooks assisted with the midnight Christmas Eve service at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, an experience that moved him deeply. "I re­mem­ber stand­ing in the old church in Beth­le­hem," he wrote, "close to the spot where Je­sus was born, when the whole church was ring­ing hour after hour with splen­did hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voic­es I knew well, tell­ing each other of the Won­der­ful Night of the Sav­ior’s birth."

O Little Town of Bethlehem

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

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