“O Little Town of Bethlehem” caught my attention last Saturday at the Christmas Eve service. I’m fascinated by how people relate to places, whether it’s a farm, a city, a mountain, a neighborhood. This year, for the first time, I heard “O Little Town” as a song about how one particular place participated in the Christmas story.
The carol describes the local conditions on the night of Jesus’s birth: The stars are silent. The people are sleeping. The streets are dark. Yet, in the middle of it all, something is happening that is relevant for all the hopes and fears of all the years.
The hymn was followed at church by Luke’s account of the Christmas story, telling about how some folks in Bethlehem responded that night. There’s a part of the story that I hadn’t noticed before. In Luke 2, an angel appears to shepherds in the region and says something like, “Good news. The Messiah is born in this town. He’s lying in a manger, wrapped in cloths.” They respond by showing up at the manger and telling the child’s parents about the angel and why they came. Luke says, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Here’s what I hadn’t noticed – Luke points out that Mary treasures the shepherds’ words. Here is a mother who has already had her own conversation with an angel (Luke 1), and yet she treasures hearing the same message from a bunch of shepherds whom she’s never met before. It matters to Mary that human neighbors stop by to affirm her love for her son and confirm his importance to the world.
It occurs to me that, having just celebrated Christmas, I am privy to the same good news that the shepherds took to Mary and Joseph – Christ is born into the world. And, if I believe the adult Jesus, I know that Christ can come in every town and moment, “wherever two or three are gathered” or whenever we act unto the least of these. Immanuel may be born in a baby; or in a mother struggling to calm her child on the bus; or in a colleague working silently at her desk. The shepherds remind me that for every person in whom Christ is born, there is a person who needs to hear a human neighbor affirm that this person’s life is good news, God with us, that it matters to the world.
This year, for the first time, I’m hearing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as a song about a place, much like my town, a place where God arrives and abides, day after day. I hope I will follow the shepherds’ lead, take notice, and show up for my neighbors.
What does this look like for you, in your town?
Emma Crossen joined the staff of Women of the ELCA in November as the director for stewardship and development.