The Gospel in a Carol
The Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” gives any congregation a simple and compelling way to tell the kernel of the evangelistic story. This carol, written by Phillips Brooks in 1868, is the Good News in a beloved song. Note the lyrics:
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
These first four lines tell about apparent realities versus eternal realities under the surface.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
Now a hint of hope is introduced to gain the secular person’s attention: Our hopes and fears meet? Where? How? What—or better yet, who—is “the everlasting light”?
For Christ is born of Mary;
and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
This is how and who! These lines introduce the Gospel story, while again contrasting what is apparently happening versus what is truly happening.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
and peace to all the earth.
The carol breaks into praise over this truly good news. Now, the following stanza is an absolutely profound revelation.
How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
This part poetically tells the warm heart of the gospel story: a gift of grace. This is the Great Exchange: God gives salvation and blessing; God takes away sin and stain. What a deal! And this can happen today.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
This part tells how to receive this wonderful gift: meekly receive it. But how? What follows is the answer.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.
Here is a classic prayer of salvation, asking God to stoop to us, forgive our sin, enter our lives, and be alive in us! Singing these words with earnest intent, a seeker can realize salvation.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
This is very good news indeed!
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
Here the singer reaffirms the prayer that asked Jesus Christ into his or her life.
Taken altogether, this simple and familiar carol piques interest, tells the Gospel story, invites response, and leads the singer into a prayer that voices a decision to believe.
People may frequently sing the carol without thought, but this Christmas Eve the time is ripe to point out the profound meaning of this carol and invite people to sing it as their faith received and allegiance declared.