The Common Good

What Are You Singing: O Little Town of Bethlehem

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I have sung “O Little Town of Bethlehem” every year on Christmas Eve for my entire life. But I believe this carol’s lyrics, specifically the words of the first verse, invite a little more thought than we normally give them. 

Nativity scene, © oldm / Shutterstock.com
Nativity scene, © oldm / Shutterstock.com

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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 now let’s ignore the historical inaccuracies of the song, and focus on what the words mean, especially the last four lines. How beautiful is it that through the dark world a light came to bind together the hopes and fears of all the years (I choose to see it as past and future) in Jesus? 

At the time of Jesus’ birth, Rome had taken this region captive. The Jewish people were under occupation and the Romans ruled strictly and harshly. Taxes constantly increased, causing many to go into debt after having their land taken from them, eventually rendering them utterly impoverished. Strife and war had defined this area for generations, and the people were aching for their Messiah to conquer. The prophets had said He would be in the City of David — in Bethlehem, the place of hopes and fears.

Consider today’s Bethlehem, this “little town” found just barely in the Palestinian land of the West Bank. The city is very nearly under occupation, where war and violence are a common — if not an everyday — occurrence.  In September the U.N. reported that one-in-two Palestinians are considered poor, with the West Bank economy losing access to 40 percent of its land and 75 percent of its drinking water. A land contested, a people impoverished. 

Enter the baby, born in a cave, with shepherds hanging around. The Messiah. Into the darkness a light: taking on the hopes and fears of His people.

I know I may be reading a lot into these simple lines, and the geography, but hear me out. A lot of our time and resources politically (and, I daresay, religiously) focus specifically on Israel — on their advancement and remaining a sovereign state. A lot of lives have been lost on all sides of this conflict. In the most recent conflict alone, reports stated that more than 145 people were killed and more than 800 wounded — Israelis and Palestinians, civilians and combatants, men, women, and children.  

One question I am left with as I think about Bethlehem and the places surrounding it this Christmas is What would Jesus have to say about this conflict? Do you think that Jesus — this Jewish baby, born in Bethlehem — would support one group or the other? Or do you think, just maybe, He would transcend both and preach a gospel of peace and love — much like He actually did.  

I recently heard Over the Rhine’s revision of this song renamed “Little Town.” The first verse is the same as above, but their second two verses bring us to the present day. The verses go like this:

The lamplit streets of Bethlehem
We walk now through the night
There is no peace in Bethlehem
There is no peace in sight
The wounds of generations
Almost too deep to heal
Scar the timeworn miracle
And make it seem surreal

The baby in the manger
Grew to a man one day
And still we try to listen now
To what he had to say
Put up your swords forever
Forgive your enemies
Love your neighbor as yourself
Let your little children come to me

As we sing this song together this Christmas, may our hearts and minds remember that this baby came to live, die, and rise again for all of us, to remind us how to love our enemies and walk in the way of peace.

Elisabeth Teater is a friend of Sojourners who is currently living in India.

Image: Nativity scene, © oldm | View Portfolio / Shutterstock.com

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