Oh Bethlehem! Oh Austin!
First published on the A Rocha USA blog.
Oh sweet town of Bethlehem
Where love came down from heaven
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift was given
A few weeks ago, I was cleaning the kitchen while sleep-deprived and heavy-hearted with prayer. My husband and kids had the flu. Close friends and several members of another small parish in town were suffering. And I ached for the incomprehensible loss facing the A Rocha community across the globe. Grief seemed to touch every sphere within and around me, rippling and spreading out in concentric circles from my little, untidy kitchen.
I walked over and tossed vegetable scraps in the trash with a tinge of guilt at still not having a compost system set up in our new place. Then my soul turned to the Lord with arms crossed and heels dug in as if to say, “I can’t care about compost right now” or maybe, more accurately, “I refuse to care when so many people are hurting.”
Not tackling a composting project is more than appropriate during an overwhelmingly hard week, but that moment exposed some cynicism in me. My husband and I have grown in our conservation efforts over the last few years. Lately though, I’m tempted to harden my heart and call those victories good enough.
Faced with the many sorrows of my community or the obscenity and absurdity of death itself, I’m reluctant to learn about ocean plastics, or light pollution, or compost. It feels like more to do and more to bear.
Now Advent has begun, and I’ve been reflecting on the song “Bethlehem” by A Rocha artist, Kellie Haddock. I find this song’s loving posture and proclamation toward Bethlehem deeply instructive for me.
First, this is a Christmas carol sung to a place. A whole place. The artist speaks afresh the familiar words “O little town of Bethlehem…” as “Oh sweet town of Bethlehem…” It reminds me of Jesus’ maternal cry, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…” or the way Wendell Berry affectionately describes the fictional city of “Port William” with all its endearing and interwoven geography, creatures, and characters.
In these verses, I hear immense tenderness. I hear awe at the covertness of God’s arrival. Despite the quiet and the dark, Christ is there. His presence confers preciousness to that little place.
As I prepare to sing this carol with my congregation on Christmas eve, something deeper than resignation wells up within me. I imagine my city, Austin, and I gaze at her- my precious place with her own dark streets, her compacted soil and hard-pressed saints; her rolling western hills and jewel-green springs. If I listen and look closely, I see that God has given Himself as a gift in every part of her.
In response, I want to keep giving myself – my attention, my care – to the whole of this particular created community. I want to proclaim the joy of Christ’s coming to the people who are hurting here, but also to the cheerful, yellow goldfinches that drink from the gutter downspout on my back patio. I can’t leave them out. I can’t sing this carol with my full heart if I’m not singing it to them also.
I’m thankful for the A Rocha community this Advent, because I continue to need the company of saints to usher me into wonder and action when weariness tempts me to disengage. Again I find encouragement to lovingly behold creation, to engage every dimension of its glory and sorrow, to get back up and dust off and sing with my voice, as well as my life, “Oh sweet city of Austin…Christ is in you.”