On Sunday morning, April 23, 1865, the Rev’d Phillips Brooks set aside the sermon he was otherwise planning to preach at his church in Philadelphia and made note of a different, a more somber event. On that very day, the Pullman car funeral procession carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln – assassinated in Washington, DC eight days earlier – had stopped and the President’s body was laid in state in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, on its way to where he would be laid to rest in his hometown of Springfield, IL. Thousands of Philadelphians came out to view the body, and just a few blocks away that morning, in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks – then regarded as one of the finest preachers in America – told his congregation that he wished to, instead, pay attention to what he called “that sacred presence in our midst.”
Reading the sermon, even nearly a century-and-a-half later, one still feels the sadness, the shock, the gut-wrenching despair which overcame the nation. Beginning slowly, almost fearfully wading into his subject, Phillips Brooks told the congregation he was going to talk about the “character of Abraham Lincoln, the impulses of his life, the causes of his death.” And because that surely struck a chord in the audience, Brooks in the next breath mentioned: “I can only promise to speak calmly, conscientiously, affectionately…” “It is the great boon of such characters as Mr. Lincoln’s,” Brooks preached, “that they reunite what God has joined together and man has put asunder. In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness.”
How we all long for “the greatness of real goodness, and the goodness of real greatness.” How hungry we are for genuine, random acts of kindness, and how we love to hear about them – love for loveliness’ sake, kindness from the heart. And how our hearts are broken, as they have been too often and too recently, by violence, senseless cruelty, and suffering. We long to be at a wedding feast, hearing of that which and those whom God has joined together, but all too often in the events of this world it feels as though we’re at a funeral vigil, bearing witness with tearful eyes to that which we have put asunder, bitterly.
We’re not alone in these conflicts and, sadly, the brokenness of creation has all too often pitted real darkness against any hope of the Light of this world. This was true for Phillips Brooks and the nation that mourned their President. In fact, his sermon about Lincoln went the nineteenth century version of “viral” and led to even greater popularity and fame for the young preacher. But his heart was heavy, very heavy, along with countless of his countrymen who experienced the destruction and brutal violence of the American Civil War, witnessing how it literally tore apart communities and families, culminating in the death of their President. Not long after his famous sermon about Lincoln, Brooks left on a one-year sabbatical, seeking peace and some measure of healing.
In December 1865, Brooks travelled to Jerusalem, and ventured on Christmas Eve to Bethlehem. In a letter home to his father, he wrote that “after an early dinner, [we] took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens.” “It is a good-looking town,” he wrote. “Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. … Somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been, and in the same fields the story of Ruth and Boaz must belong. As we passed,” he wrote, “shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ leading them home to fold. We returned and waited for the service. The most interesting part was the crowd of pilgrims, with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial. We went to bed very tired.”
In another letter to the Sunday school at his Philadelphia parish, he wrote about the feeling, the peace, the renewal he experienced “when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.” That time in Bethlehem, especially, was a healing experience for Brooks, and three years later the memory was still, as he wrote, “singing in my soul.” Singing so much that, in the fall of 1868, Phillips Brooks put pen to paper and wrote a poem, which his organist set to a tune in time for their Christmas service that year, and which we now know as the notable Christmas carol “O Little town of Bethlehem.”
Oddly (and not without controversy in its own time) “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is not a carol to God but a song sung to a city – a humble, insignificant-if-not-for-one-event Judean hill town. Tonight and in Phillips Brooks own time, Bethlehem is also a city which knows violence, hatred, and strife: the poem mentions in its first stanza the town’s “dark streets”, but even amidst that brokenness shines “the everlasting light / the hopes and fears of all the years” which, profoundly, “are met in thee tonight.”
The poem widens its gaze and tells a larger, more universal story. The stars and galaxies, the universe’s created order itself, in the second stanza, coalesce “to proclaim the holy birth” – “and praises sing to God the King / and peace to men on earth.” Peace, that which Phillips Brooks went around the world in search of. Peace, that which Christians proclaim and seek on Christmas.
Know this, then: The peace you seek is real; the peace, which scripture says, passes all understanding; the peace which Christ himself breathed on his disciples, not some passing relief, not a pain reliever, but God’s own: “My peace I give you, my own peace I leave with you,” Jesus said. The peace you seek is established upon the truth, in Christmas, that the creation is not marred, not permanently at least, by our brokenness. Like a resurrection story in itself, these places – Bethlehem or Jerusalem; Civil War battlefields or Ford’s Theatre; Newtown, CT, among too many others – do not bear for ever the mark of the slain, do not encase the suffering of this cruel world. No, the prayers we lift up are still true – that God would “cast out our sin and enter in,” that God, Emmanuel, will “be born in us, come to us, abide with us.”
And yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with you one other truth about God’s peace. So know this, too: Hard times will come, and come again, and that’s why we return, week after week. The life of Christian faith is not an elixir from the hurt of this world. Another hymn kept creeping into my heart as I was pondering these words for tonight, a hymn about Jesus’ disciples. It ends with a particularly haunting line: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” I won’t pretend to know what that means – strife closed in the sod – but I know that it’s a true sentiment that peace, true peace, doesn’t mean the end of strife but, rather, a different way of relating to it. That’s why we keep coming back, week after week. I’m reminded that Gandhi once said, “I believe in peace, but I do not want the peace that you find in stone; I do not want the peace that you find in the grave. I want the peace which you find embedded in the human breast, which is exposed to the arrows of the whole world, but which is protected from harm by the power of the Almighty God.” Which is a theme the fourteenth century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, also expressed with her words: “I never said that you would not be tempest tossed, work-weary or discomforted, only that you shall not be overcome.”
The end of the story is not relief, then, but peace, and peace built by God who is redeeming and renewing and loving and rebuilding this world, brick by brick, community by community, heart by heart. The end of the story, then, is that love wins, that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” … not in a city faraway, not in a distant time, not in a bygone era, but in you: “born in us, come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.” Merry Christmas.