Sunday, December 20, 2009

O Little Town of Bethlehem

In just a few days, Episcopalians and other Christians will be singing the words of the poem written by Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks that are so familiar to us in the hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

Check out this lovely rendition:

Fr. Stephen, an Orthodox priest who blogs at Glory to God for All Things, offers thoughts on this hymn that change how I hear otherwise familiar words. He writes:

Phillips Brooks, the Anglican priest who wrote the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” offered a very rich phrase with his observation, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous Word is given…” The ubiquitous sound of Christmas music has accompanied me into almost every store and restaurant since late November. At its best, the music is quiet and reverent. At its worst, the music jars the mind with every imaginable form of cultural distortion. Thus my thoughts have turned to the silence of the Word.

The silence of the Word made flesh is a crucial aspect of the Incarnation. Though Christ taught – it is not as Teacher that the Church knows Him best: He is certainly not to be compared to other religious figures who are primarily known for their teaching. It is Who He is, and what He did and does that distinguish Him as Lord and Savior. Even the words spoken by Him need to be received into the silence of the heart, according the fathers of the Church.

In a very noisy season, it is worth pausing for silence – listening for the silence of the Word. Spoken into our hearts, the Word again “takes flesh,” as we hear Him in obedience.

My response to Fr. Stephen took a more personal turn than I initially expected:

It may be a bit odd to say this in such a forum, but serving as an Episcopal priest these days, and knowing what I do about Eastern Orthodoxy (and with a brother who converted to Orthodoxy), there’s a part of me that wishes I had simply been born Orthodox. I’m mindful of a clergy colleague who (speaking of moving from one parish to another) said, "The grass is always browner on the other side." Nevertheless, in spite of the messiness that surely exists in your neck of the ecclesial woods, there's that part of me that wishes the dogmatic core of the Christian faith laid out so clearly in historic creeds and Ecumenical Councils were just not up to revision and/or second-thoughts in my neck of the ecclesial woods. Not that everyone within Anglicanism (broadly conceived) is doing that, but it can and does happen more often than I would have initially expected. It can really be painful at times.

That may be why I felt the need to respond to your posting in the first place. Perhaps, at this juncture in my own discernment, I take some comfort and hope in reading an appraisal from a brother in Christ, who is also an Orthodox priest, of an Episcopal priest's lyrics for a beloved Christmas hymn, even as I continue to struggle with what it really means to be faithful to our Lord and the inheritance we have received in my neck of the ecclesial woods. In the midst of the back-and-forth bluster of Left vs. Right within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, what do I need to hear in the silence?

Please pray for me, a sinner.


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