Sacred Music Sunday: How Far is it to Bethlehem
Do you have a favorite Christmas carol? I have too many to name just one. You probably do, too. For me, Christmas music is the best thing about this season. This month the music that’s most on my mind is the English carol “How Far is it to Bethlehem.” I memorized it because I’ll be directing a dozen kids in singing it for sacrament meeting next week.
How Far is it to Bethlehem? Not very far. Shall we see the stable room lit by a star? May we see the little child? Is he within? If we lift the wooden latch may we go in?May we stroke the creatures there, ox, ass, or sheep? May we peep like them, and see Jesus asleep? If we touch his tiny hand will he awake? Will he know we’ve come so far just for his sake? Great kings have precious gifts, and we have naught. Little smiles and little tears are all we brought. For all weary children, Mary must weep. Here on his bed of straw, sleep children, sleep. God in his mother’s arms, babes in the byre, Sleep as they sleep who find their heart’s desire.
I love this text because it captures the timid awe I’ve seen in children when they’re in the presence of a new baby. They sense that there is nothing ordinary about a human life, and because they are still young and dependent, perhaps the fragility of that life is especially real to them. Children sense their own vulnerability. It’s the reason they hold so tightly to their caregivers in strange situations.
The carol makes me think of children during Jesus’ time, and in the centuries before and after, and in parts of our world whose existence is precarious. Who are weary, and for whom security is only found in the very short term: this piece of bread, this hiding place, this warm hand.
I am struck by the “just in time” parts of Jesus’ life. The things needed to sustain him that were found only in the very short term. Mother’s milk is produced in quantity just enough for one feeding. The gold for travel to Egypt may have arrived by the hand of a Wise Man just in time to fund the trip. The 5,000 disciples fed by a boy who provided just enough loaves and fishes to seed a miracle. Mary Magdalene, who washed and anointed Jesus’ feet just prior to his death.
And while I am very fortunate, while I throw out enough uneaten food each month to feed several children, while my kids are well nourished, clean, vaccinated, and put to bed each night under the protection of warm blankets and locked doors, I still feel the precariousness of existence. I would have been one of the Israelites who collected more manna than she needed for a day, failing to trust God that there would be more in the morning.
The point, so clear from the story of a vulnerable baby placed on a bed of straw, yet so hard to accept, is that there is no material safety in this world. Physical security should not be our heart’s desire, because that desire can never be fully satisfied, and because skill in acquiring it is not what we are here to learn. However a desire for discipleship is a longing that can be satisfied, that will let God’s children rest on the straw that he will daily provide.
I wanted to share a recording of “How Far is it to Bethlehem”l with you, but I couldn’t find one that I thought fit the pathos of it. You can find a recording of the Tabernacle Choir singing it on YouTube, but it’s with the extravagance of a full orchestra, lush with the sound of hundred voices, and set within the splendid walls of an imposing building. I prefer the voices of the children in my ward, not strong and polished, but tender, and beloved. I’ll be singing this carol to myself all week, trying to teach myself what to desire.