O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy dark and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
Last night my wife Meg and I went to the Birchmere, Washington’s best acoustic venue, for a concert with the husband and wife duo, Over the Rhine. On their Christmas tour, they performed for a packed-out and eager audience. For a few years now I have been listening to “Snow Angels,” an album full of songs of the season.
Mostly their own music, one is a recasting of an old carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”—but they have made it their very own, telling a tale that is truer to the way that little town actually is, one politically and poignantly full of hopes and fears.
Still pondering its meaning today, I gave the end-of-the-semester lecture at the American Studies Program, the interdisciplinary semester on Capitol Hill where I taught for many years. No longer my “work,” I still am asked to return at the beginning and end of each term, inviting the students into the learning and life of Washington, and then asking at the end, “So what have you learned, and what will it mean?”
Today I played Over the Rhine’s “Little Town” as a way in. We talked about Washington and the world, about geo-politics and the way the world works and doesn’t work. And we talked about my friend and neighbor Todd Deatherage who today returned from his second trip to Bethlehem in three weeks. After years on Capitol Hill and in the State Department, he gives his life away for Bethlehem, aware more than most of us ever will be of its complex hopes and fears. Finally we talked about the reality of the moral universe, what Wendell Berry calls “the greater economy.” It is the world that is there, whether we like it or not, whether we believe in it or not, whether we choose it or not. We can make choices—responsible actors in history that we are –but the choices have consequences.
The musicians finish the song with their own words, offering a vision of the little town that we all need to hear, if we have ears that hear.
The lamplit streets of Bethlehem
We walk now through the night
There is no peace in Bethlehem
There is no peace in sight
The wounds of generations
Almost too deep to heal
Scar the timeworn miracle
And make it seem surreal
The baby in the manger
Grew to a man one day
And still we try to listen now
To what he had to say
Put up your swords forever
Forgive your enemies
Love your neighbor as yourself
Let your little children come to me