Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas Hymnody: Theology and History (7)

Phillips Brooks (1835 - 1893) was one of the most respected preachers of his day. A descendant of the Puritan preacher John Cotton (1585 - 1652) and pioneering educator Samuel Phillips, Jr. (1752 - 1802), he began his ministry at Church of the Advent in Philadelphia following his graduation from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1859. Three years later, at the height of the Civil War, he moved to Church of the Holy Trinity, also in Philadelphia, where he served for seven years and gained a reputation as an outspoken critic of slavery and an advocate for preservation of the union.

Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Brooks delivered a memorable eulogy for the slain president, while his body lay in state in Philadelphia. Consistent with his long-standing opposition to slavery, Brooks declared, "Solemnly, in the sight of God, I charge this murder where it belongs, on slavery. . . . In the barbarism of slavery the foul act and its foul method had its birth."

Brooks was a Bostonian by birth and in 1869 he returned to his hometown to serve as rector of Trinity Church, a post he held for 22 years. Finally, in 1891, he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts but served only fifteen months before his death on January 23, 1893.

"Preaching," Brooks said in a lecture at Yale University in 1877, "is the communication of truth by man to men . . . [it] is the bringing of truth through personality." Three years after his death, a compilation of some of his sermons, edited by his brother John Cotton Brooks, was published under the title, Sermons For The Principal Festivals and Fasts Of The Church Year. In 2003, a collection of some his greatest sermons from Trinity Church was compiled by Ellen Wilbur and published by Eerdmans under the title, The Consolations of God: Great Sermons of Phillips Brooks.

Homileticians to this day revere Brooks for his poetic eloquence. His Yale lectures, currently available from Kregel Publications under the title, The Joy of Preaching, are still a standard text. "For the most part," writes Warren W. Wiersbe in the introduction to the Kregel compilation, "the Yale lecturers have presented interesting and helpful material over the years; and some of the series have become classics. But I personally feel that most of what has been written on homiletics in America since 1871 is in one way or another a footnote to Phillips Brooks. That is why his lectures are so important to the preacher who wants to understand and apply the basic principles of the art and craft of preaching."

While preachers still remember Phillips Brooks as a master homiletician, the people in the pews are probably most familiar with him for one single contribution to church hymnody. In 1865, Brooks visited Bethlehem in the Holy Land. Three years later, recalling his experience, he wrote the poem, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." On Christmas Eve, Lewis Redner (1831 - 1908), organist at Church of the Holy Trinity, wrote the tune, "St. Louis." The hymn was sung for the first time on Christmas Day 1868.
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 wondering 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.

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

Brooks was considered a "broad churchman" by his contemporaries. In the context of the religious ethos of the time, that meant he was either too liberal or not liberal enough, depending on one's point of view. His sermons were generally devoid of evangelical language. His personal theology, however, tended toward orthodoxy and he emphasized this more in lectures and Bible studies. In this hymn, Brooks emphasizes some major theological themes of Advent and Christmas. The prominence of Mary is notable, and the prayerful language of the final stanza seems to indicate a desire to follow her example of faithfulness. As the "holy Child of Bethlehem" was first "born of Mary" (stanza 2), so the worshipers pray that he also "be born in us today." The concluding line, "O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!" is a variation on the ancient prayer, "Maranatha!" ("Come, Lord Jesus!"), pointing forward to the day when the One who came first as a "blessed Child" (stanza 3) will come again as the glorious King, abiding with us, and we with him, forever.