By Trudy Wischemann
Sunday night, thinking of Bethlehem, the song “O Little Town…” began to play in my mind. The lyrics began to want attention, so I went online to learn their history.
The song was written by an Episcopalian pastor, Phillips Brooks, for his Sunday school classes after he made a Christmas pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1865. He’d ridden a horse to that little town from Jerusalem on Christmas Eve, and worshipped that night in Constantine’s basilica built over the supposed nativity site in 326 A.D. Thanks to Rev. Brooks’ inspiration, and a million Christmas card images, we have this strongly imprinted pastoral picture of the small town where Jesus was born.
I wonder if the lyrics would have been different had Rev. Brooks ridden to Bethlehem from Nazareth instead of from Jerusalem, a highly centralized urban area for centuries. Nazareth then was more like Tonyville or Tooleville, all settlements for landless laborers, not priests. Going from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been more like going from Tonyville to Visalia, the county seat, where numbers are kept and administrators for the various government levels overhead have their offices. Try riding to Visalia on a burro, looking for a place to stay with a quarter in your pocket and no Medi-Cal card to check into Kaweah Delta.
“Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” These cold crisp winter nights, Orion lies stretched out above my back yard in Lindsay, surrounded by other heavenly bodies. Sunday night was so clear, the stars were piercing; I could almost feel the Archer’s arrow. I felt guilty going back inside, turning my back on the stellar light show. But there’s so much to do this time of year. I clicked the shutter in my mind, hoping I wouldn’t forget the sight, and carried on.
My sleep was deep and dreamless, as many of ours were, I’m sure. ‘Tis the season of hibernation juxtaposed against the season of dramatic imagination, whether that be the return of an infant in a manger or Santa Claus and his twelve reindeer. Clarence’s bell, a miracle on 34th St. in Manhatten. Dorothy being terrified by a loudspeaker voice saying “Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain – I Am the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.” It is as if the short days and deep dark nights invite the mind to dance hard against the desire to sleep.
But we might take that deep, dreamless sleep also as a metaphor for the bulk of our days. We plod through our responsibilities, take liberties where we can, and slip into unconsciousness of one kind or another, just getting through. This is true in Nazareth as well as Bethlehem, Lindsay as well as Visalia, while the miracle of light goes on overhead daytime and night.
There’s a song in the air, though, and we can hear it if we stop to listen. We’ll be singing next Sunday night, the 23rd, at Lindsay United Methodist Church, if you want to join us. Come from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and we’ll drink cocoa together afterward.
Be well, friends. Light your candles, turn on the Christmas tree, sing Silent Night, and love one another. Peace unearth.