In Bethlehem, King David's town (website only)

Authors & translators:
Hill, Gareth
Composers & arrangers:
Watson, Merla
Festivals and Seasons:

holy-family-margret-hofheinz-doering-galerie-brigitte-mauch-goeppingen-creative-commonsIn Bethlehem, King David's town
a stable proved enough
as God revealed our rescue plan:
found in a feeding trough.
Empty of all but love divine,
born through a mother’s pain,
the Prince of Peace became like us
to free us from our sin. 

What whispered prayers did Mary make
within that holy place
as he who saw creation spark
now sees his mother’s face?
What promises did heaven hear,
what prophecies were said,
within that hallowed resting place
as Jesus laid his head? 

Heaven’s servant Son lay in the straw                                                  
– our Saviour come to die –                                                                    
while angels sang and shepherds ran                                                  
and starlight filled the sky.
Not clinging to his rights as God,
he claimed a humble home;
this moment when the earth was blessed
to see God’s glory come. 

Beyond the stable and the cross
he comes to us again:
exalted now to God’s right hand
yet present in our pain.
Immanuel, we sing for joy,
yet hold our broken world
and long for heaven’s peace to rule:
your Bethl’em grace unfurled.        

Words: © 2023 Gareth Hill (For more information and hymns, see Tune: Watson (StF 674)
Metre: DCM (86.86.D)

Ideas for use

Merla Watson's gentle tune, with its melancholy lilt and suggestion of Jewish musical tradition, is well worth spending time to get to know. Its repeated phrases will likely become an ear-worm! In Singing the Faith, it is used as the setting for Herman Stuempfle's Would I have answered you when you called, but works well here – offering a musical uplift in the second half of each verse. (Note the need to sing "Bethlehem" as two syllables in the final line of the hymn.)

More information

In Gareth Hill’s hands, the familiar story of the first Christmas (pictured above by Margret Hofheinz-Döring, from the Galerie Brigitte Mauch, Creative Commons) appears refreshed and thought-provoking. At the heart of this text is good story-telling – a sense of context (a “rescue plan”, v1), anticipation mixed with anxiety (“whispered prayers”, v2), the celebrations of verse 3, and the joy, hope and peace with which the hymn concludes.

The messy humanness of the Bethlehem event, transformed as it is into a “hallowed resting place”, remains very real in a love “born through a mother’s pain”. Here, Gareth writes, he had in mind not only the natural labour pains that most women experience, but also “the pain of Mary being chosen, which would have put her at risk of condemnation for being pregnant in the way she was”. There is, too, “the wider sense of pain that some mothers experience because their giving birth is within the context of abuse, fleeing conflict, searching for home”.

Here, also, are words that contain little echoes of contemporary life and discourse, and allusions to larger theological points. A lovely example comes in verse 2, when Gareth writes: “as he who saw creation spark now sees his mother’s face” – lines that are suggestive of how we now understand the universe to have begun, while also speaking of a God present before creation, yet who (in Charles Wesley’s words) became "contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man” (Let earth and heaven combine, StF 208).

And as we sing, “Not clinging to his rights as God, he claimed a humble home” (v3), maybe we will pause to think about times when we feel entitled, dismissive of others, or cling to power and position in the manner of some politicians. If we raise questions about ourselves, we will be responding to the counter-cultural miracle of the incarnation.

Whatever allusions or challenges these words provoke, however, they are underpinned by the divine project, reflected in scripture – for example:

Luke 2 – retells the birth and early years of Jesus, concluding with the observation that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2: 51)

Philippians 2: 1-8 “though [Christ] was in the form of God [he] emptied himself . . . born in human likeness”

John 17: 5 – Jesus alludes to the presence he had with the Father “before the world existed” cf. John 1: 1-18

Acts 2: 33 – Christ “exalted at the right hand of God”

Gareth Hill

gareth-hill-croppedBefore becoming ordained as Methodist minister, Gareth Hill worked as a journalist and trainer. He was a minister in Cornwall for 12 years, where he founded Tubestation surf church in Polzeath, and he then served latterly in Hampshire. Gareth was the event journalist for Spring Harvest for 35 years. He has now returned to South Wales, where he was born, as a supernumerary minister.

Gareth has three hymns in Singing the Faith as well as five others on the StF+ website, including another Christmas hymn (We do not look for angel choirs) and his reflections on Advent hope: We wait in hope for hope to come.

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