I began celebrating Christmas four months early this year. While visiting relatives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, my sister-in-law gave my wife and me a tour of the historic downtown. The little town of Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River is rich in history having played a role in both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. We stopped at the home of George Washington’s mother Mary and drove by the university named for her.
Something in the back of my head suggested that this quaint Virginian town somehow factored into the writing of one of my favorite Christmas carols. I did some research on my iPhone. And to my delight, I was right.
I asked my sister-in-law if we could stop at St. George’s Episcopal Church. She agreed. Except for a custodian working on a piece of carpet and docent seated in the back pew, the sanctuary was empty.
“I understand this is the church where The Reverend Phillips Brooks preached his first sermon,” I announced excitedly to the docent. “He’s the man who wrote ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’”
To my chagrin the tour guide stared blankly at me. Looking at her notes, she indicated that this indeed was a very famous church. George Washington’s mother had been a member of the congregation. John Paul Jones’ brother was buried in the church graveyard. She pointed to a couple of Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows that graced the worship space. But, sadly, she could not confirm what I had been told years ago, and what I had confirmed on the Internet.
I assumed there must be a plaque somewhere referencing Brooks. I walked around the interior of the church until I saw it. A bronze plaque to the side of the altar contained these words: “Bishop Phillips Brooks preached his first sermon in this church on July 3, 1859, after his ordination as a Deacon.”
Taking a hymnal from the pew rack, I opened to the page containing O Little Town of Bethlehem and showed the docent Phillips Brooks’ name. She assured me she would add this fascinating fact to her future tours.
That’s when I asked her a favor. Would she also be willing to use my iPhone to shoot a video of me singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” from the pulpit where Brooks preached his first sermon? She agreed. Standing behind Phillips Brooks’ pulpit I sang from the St. George’s hymnal to an empty church.
As my eyes focused on the lyrics, I noticed the date at the bottom of the page. It was then I realized that this year is the 150th anniversary of Brooks’ carol. And it dawned on me that the message of this hymn is just as timely today as when it was written.
In his carol, Brooks speaks of the hopes and fears of all the years. He underscores a town marked by deep and dreamless sleep. How appropriate, I thought. In a world punctuated by Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement and mass shootings, there are fears in spite of hopes. Our pining for peace on earth is often dreamless. Our world of sin is marked by dark streets in need of a shining light.
No, not much has changed since a young unknown deacon in Fredericksburg became the beloved Bishop of Boston. Phillips Brooks’ lyrics still express the longing of our hearts. “O come to us. Abide with us, our lord, Emmanuel.”
The Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos is the full-time chaplain at Covenant Shores Retirement Community on Mercer Island. He is the faith and values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter and contributes original poetry each Blue Friday to KOMO news radio.