‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ … is a Philadelphia song.

Michael Martin Mills

Michael Martin Mills has particular tastes in music, including Christmas music. Hear him describe a discovery he made that transformed his view of a Christmas carol he previously disliked.

Christmas music that is schmaltzy doesn’t do it for me. It’s been a little prejudice of mine since I was a teenager. I’ve found over the years that I really gravitate toward older European Christmas music. When I was a child there were these new Christmas songs, like “The Little Drummer Boy,” and I just … no thank you. And there are some very traditional Christmas carols, Christmas songs that can really get schmaltzed up. And they’ll cross the line for me, too. One of those that I just did not enjoy for a long, long time was “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” I think that’s because you hear it in malls, you hear it on the radio, you hear too many people in an ill-trained choir. It just doesn’t really work too well for me. So for many years it was on my list of ones to avoid.

But then at some point in my young adulthood I found there was another tune. It’s a charming tune. It’s a British folk tune that Ralph Vaughan Williams found in his jaunts about England. And it’s quite different. Listening to that text matched with that melody, I was able to appreciate it and understand that the text really is pretty special.

It turns out that there’s more to this text, or to this hymn, carol, song than most of us know. And that’s the fact that it’s a Philadelphia song. The words, the poem was written by Phillips Brooks, who was the Rector of Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square. He had gone to the Holy Land in 1866 and two years later he wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for Sunday School at Holy Trinity. And he gave the text to the organist, who wrote the tune that most of us are familiar with. But fortunately I chanced upon the other tune and got to know the content of the text.

What really gets me, what’s really special is the third verse. It distills so much in exquisite language. It begins: “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Now that’s pretty remarkable. And if sung in a sweet, controlled, non-schmaltzy way – Whoo. That’s pretty strong!

And it goes on to say: “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.”

He was saying that unlike God speaking to Moses in a big, profound, Charlton Heston voice, saying, “Here it is, Moses!” – the Incarnation arrived on its own. And that’s the silence that we have to enter in so that Christ may enter in.

Regular Sunday Service Schedule: Returns September 24, 2017

8:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist
9:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist with music
10:00 a.m. Parish Forum & Kairos
10:15 a.m. worship.together
Holy Eucharist for families with young children
11:15 a.m. Choral Eucharist

Other Days

Silent morning meditation is offered at 8:15 a.m. weekdays, in the Mary Chapel.

We would love to have you join us.

Location

This Episcopal church is located in the heart of the historic neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, five blocks west of Germantown Avenue at the corner of St. Martin’s Lane and West Willow Grove Avenue.


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