Phillips Brooks was worn out. After guiding his congregation through the bloody years of the American Civil War and delivering a powerful message at President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, Brooks needed a break from his duties at Church of the Advent in Philadelphia. His congregation graciously gave Brooks a year-long sabbatical with pay, and the 30-year-old pastor spent much of that year traveling. On the evening before Christmas Day 1865, Brooks found himself on horseback, riding from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
As he rode, Brooks studied the fields and quiet streets of Bethlehem and imagined them almost unchanged since biblical times. Brooks said later he felt as if he was surrounded by the spirit of that first Christmas. The five-hour worship service he attended that Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity, during which the “whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God,” invigorated the exhausted pastor. He later told his family and friends that his experience in Bethlehem was so overpowering that it would forever be “singing in my soul.”
The visit prompted Brooks to pen the poem, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which was set to music in 1868. The first stanza of this carol describes Jesus as an everlasting light that illuminates the world’s dark streets, addressing both our hopes and our fears. Given the violence of a civil war and recent presidential assassination, Brooks certainly understood darkness and fear. And yet because of Bethlehem’s child, Brooks confidently offered hope to those who had “dared not dream of it before,” as he writes in a later Christmas poem, “The Voice of the Christ Child.”
We too know fear. Some of us are better acquainted with it than others. My friend Sara has lived a remarkably adventurous life, given that anxiety is her frequent companion. “Some people hoard things,” she explains. “I hoard worry and fear.” Not willing to let fear occupy every corner of her mind, Sara daily reminds herself to leave her worries at the feet of Jesus.
In Matthew 6, Jesus recognizes our tendency to accumulate worries and fears, and he offers a surprising instruction: “Seek first your heavenly Father’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things—what you’ll eat, drink and wear—will be given to you” (my paraphrase). While seeking after God is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, we are nevertheless each called to live out this command. As we enter the Advent season, I recognize that there are certainly things to fear—fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and shootings. My prayer is that our fears will recede as we prioritize our commitment to pursue God’s kingdom.