On this final week of advent, we arrive at the theme of love. Perhaps the most important of ideals – hope, peace and joy all emerging from love, encouraged by love, the results of active love. When I thought about which carol I might like to consider this week, I had difficulty choosing. But I thought maybe one that told the story would be appropriate. Because whether we believe it to be true or just a lovely tale, the Christmas story is one of love. The love of a gentle mother, willing to take on what would have been a difficult burden. The love of a husband in circumstances that at best would have been confusing, at worst, devastating. The love of the Divine gift given as an example of our human potential and our immense value.
So we find ourselves visiting this little town of Bethlehem – along with many before us, some travelling afar and some through the magic of music. These words were written in 1868 by Phillips Brooks after his visit to Bethlehem in 1866. I chose the old English folk tune used by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1906, not the one I’m most familiar with, but I found it to be quite lovely.
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 wond’ring 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 giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive Him still
the dear Christ enters in.
What struck me most about these words was the atmosphere of silence that this story of love is set within. Silence. What, for some, is considered to be the greatest gift of love ever exhibited is done in silence. The peaceful night being watched by angels, dreamless sleep, no ear hearing the arrival of this wondrous gift.
We do not live in a world of silence. We live in a noisy world. We are loud. And, it often seems, the loudest among us are the most praised, the most valued, the most noticed. Yet in silent acts of love there is so much power. There are those in our midst that work tirelessly in silence. They simply live and give what is needed with no fanfare, asking no fee, receiving little thanks and requiring no instructions. They see needs and fill them. They see unrest and provide peaceful solutions. They live their lives expressing love – through all manner of acts, with all kinds of voices, in all sorts of places. They are grandparents who help raise their grandchildren. They are volunteers who give their time. They are teachers who provide school supplies for their students. They are children who make new friends. They are parents who buy food. They are protesters who walk for peace. They are artists who record our shared experiences. They are scientists who look for cures. They are sisters who knit warm scarves. They are brothers who fix cars. They are everywhere.
Whether we know it or not, we are all part of this little town of Bethlehem. Our lights can shine in the dark streets, silently giving our wondrous gifts. As we celebrate this season, may we love fully. May we love without need of repayment and without need of noise; calming fears and sharing hope.
How silently, how silently this wondrous gift is given.