Posts Tagged ‘Phillips Brooks’

Jesus Christ,

the condescension of divinity,

and the exaltation of humanity.

–Phillips Brooks



Are you familiar with Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)? If you had lived in the mid-to-late 1800s, it’s likely you would have known the name. By age thirty, he was considered one of the premier preachers in America.

Brooks began his ministry at a small church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he served two years. In 1859, another church in Philadelphia, Holy Trinity Church, invited him to be their minister, and Brooks accepted.

Less than two years later, America was engulfed in the Civil War. Young Brooks led his congregation through those dark and painful times.

But finally, on April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to General Grant, and Americans dared hope for reconciliation between North and South. Then, just one week later, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed. Phillips Brooks was asked to preach at the funeral of the fallen president. Brooks was just thirty years old.

The war years had taken their toll on the young preacher. In December of 1865, he took a sabbatical in the Middle East. On Christmas Eve Day, Brooks was in Jerusalem. He decided to borrow a horse and ride to Bethlehem, about five miles away.

Approaching the village, Phillips noted that little had changed since Bible times. Sheep still dotted the hillsides and shepherds in long robes still kept watch over their flocks.




At dusk, Brooks rode into Bethlehem itself—just a small, clay-colored village crisscrossed with dirt paths. Phillips thought, How stunning to consider that our heavenly King was born into such modest surroundings.

And then his thoughts drifted back to that momentous night when the Son of God also became the Son of Man. His heart overflowed with fresh wonder and unspeakable joy. The heartaches of the past four years began to diminish.

Later he would tell family and friends the experience would forever be “singing in my soul.” But Phillips found it impossible to fully describe that evening. This was one time the famous orator was at a loss for words.

Three years later in 1868, Brooks found his thoughts returning to that mystical Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. He started jotting down words and phrases that occurred to him, and it wasn’t long before he had the makings of a poem.

This might lend itself to music, he thought, and gave the poem to the organist of Holy Trinity Church, Lewis Redner.




But try as Redner might, a tune worthy of Brooks’ lovely poem would not come to him.

Lewis went to bed on Christmas Eve feeling like a failure.

Later, Lewis explained what happened next: “I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

But it has. Nearly one hundred fifty years later, we’re still singing O Little Town of Bethlehem. It is one of the most beloved carols in the world.

 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.


Phillips beautifully highlighted two contrasts between:  1) the still, dark night and the everlasting Light that burst upon Bethlehem, 2) the sleepy little village and the momentous birth which occurred in its midst. The tune Redner heard and recorded also created contrast by moving between major and minor keys.

Brooks concluded his first verse with one more set of opposites :  All of our hopes are met (fulfilled) in Jesus, and all our fears are met (dealt with) by Jesus (1 Timothy 1:1; 1 John 4:18).  Glad tidings of great joy, to be sure.

I have to wonder also if the quote at the beginning of this post—another study of contrasts–didn’t result from that Christmas Eve in Bethlehem:

Jesus Christ,

the condescension of divinity,

and the exaltation of humanity.


Sources: Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins; www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com; www.crosswalk.com; http://www.joy-bringer-ministries.org.

Photo credits:  www.openlettersmonthly.com; http://www.heavens-gates.com; http://www.globible.com



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