Have you ever listened carefully to the words of this familiar Christmas hymn?

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.

The first stanza introduces us to one of the themes of this hymn: People move through daily life, often unaware both of God’s providential care (upholding creation, as seen in the movement of the stars) and of the movement of his salvation plan (the coming of Christ). But the reality that Jesus defies our expectations and goes largely unrecognized does nothing to diminish the reality of his significance: here, in this little town, is born the Answer to every human need from age to age!

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.

While the humans sleep, unaware, the angels know and celebrate what God is doing. Yet even “morning stars” (Job 38:7) “wonder” at it (1 Peter 1:12).

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him
still the dear Christ enters in.

This is where I think I’d misread the hymn in the past. When it says “so God imparts,” the so doesn’t tell us the reason God imparts but the manner. That is, in this way (“just so”) God gives his grace: in ways unexpected (to us) and unrecognized (by us) and ordinary (cp. Lk 1 in Mary’s song/Magnificat). This is true both of the Incarnation and of a Christian’s salvation–not everyone will recognize what has happened, and it may not be flashy, but just as surely (in both cases), Christ has come to live with His people! Conversion is an invisible yet real work of God; in Christ God applies the blessings of heaven to flesh-and-blood, sinful people (cp. Ephesians 1). It is a gift both heavenly and earthly, equally real in every part.

And so having reflected on those theological bits, isn’t the last stanza a logical response?

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.

To this day most ears still don’t hear his coming, but unbelief never damages or changes the truth (Rom. 2:3-4). When we hear the good news (the Gospel) announced by the angels (and repeated today by very ordinary Christians and pastors), we must receive it. Christ will deal with our sin so that we can be restored to him. Welcome, our Lord, Emmanuel!

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