Thy deep and dreamless sleep

Posted on December 24, 2010

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All Saints Anglican church, Windsor, Ontario. (1920)

I remember standing in the old church in Windsor…”

These were the words with which I intended to begin this post. They refer to a specific moment in 1960 or 1961 when I was seven or eight years old. We were attending the Christmas services in All Saints Church, Windsor, and the congregation had just risen to sing hymn number 82 from the Anglican “Book of Common Praise.”

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

I think it was the combination of “dreamless sleep” and “stars.” To me, a child of the space age, as familiar with the distance between the sun and the Earth as I was with my own telephone number (CLearwater 6-4889), the stars were not pretty little gems glittering in the sky, but awesome balls of unimaginable power and fury, so distant that their light took hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years to reach us. In number and scope they were the very embodiment of infinity: of forces so vast and limitless that no amount of thought, no stretch of the imagination could even begin to put a boundary to them.

Bethlehem

The phrase “dreamless sleep,” in juxtaposition with this sudden reminder of the eternally Infinite, resulted in an almost hallucinatory vision. Below me I could see Bethlehem in the darkness, a small, unmemorable village which, from the dawn of time, had been unknowingly marked as an entry point through which an illimitable, even dreadful power would enter the mundane and finite world.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

By means of an “everlasting Light” that nevertheless left its streets in darkness, Bethlehem became a crossroads: a meeting of Absolutes — the absolute hope and the absolute fear. This was both exhilarating and terrifying. Until then, Christmas had been a sentimental occasion blending the beneficence of a kindly God with generosity of Santa Claus. This vision, this awful, harrowing, tremendous vision of an absolute, unmeasurable Consciousness descending upon a sleeping, unsuspecting town, blew away all the dreamy comfort I’d associated with the season. I didn’t have the words for it, I barely had the concepts for it, but somehow that wasn’t Bethlehem I was seeing. That was me.

 

Interior of All Saints Church, looking from the alter. As I recall, I was in either the front or second row on the left. Why, I don't know. I don't think it wasn't our regular spot.

God had always been inescapable because He was everywhere and saw everything, like a supernatural combination of parent and policeman. But while He was inescapable, He was at least outside of me. Now, however, I saw Him as inescapable because He had invaded me. The very thing that made me something other than a lifeless body trapped in a “dreamless sleep” was a monstrous Eternity from which there was no escape.

 

The baby Jesus was no simpering infant, but an Incarnation: the invasion of divinity in me, writ large.

As I said, I didn’t have the vocabulary for this, but I certainly had the horror and the awe. At that moment I felt a tremendous peace, mixed with a literal holy terror.

It passed, of course. I don’t even know if it was truly life-changing, although I’ve returned to that moment again and again in my life, recalling the vision itself with some degree of clarity. Recalling the feeling and realisation with a disappointing dimness.

And so I decided to write about it this Christmas, starting with the words, “I remember standing in the old church in Windsor.”

Out of curiosity I first investigated the history of the hymn. It was written by Phillips Brooks, considered one of the greatest preachers of the 19th century in America. Brooks, a man who believed that Christianity was more than doctrine. Who called Jesus Christ “the condescension of divinity, and the exaltation of humanity.”

In 1868, following his visit to Bethlehem a couple of years earlier, Brooks wrote a “simple little carol” and asked his organist, Mr. Lewis H. Redner, to put a tune to it for the coming Christmas service. Redner also taught Sunday School at Holy Trinity, where Brooks was rector, and worried more about the lesson he would teach than the music. On the Saturday before they were to rehearse it, Redner still hadn’t made any headway, but he was awoken that night, as he later said, “hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear.”

The resultant hymn is still being sung almost 150 years later.

And then I stumbled upon a passage in which Brooks spoke of the experience which led to his writing of the hymn: “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem,” he begins, and although there’s undoubtedly little more than coincidence in the similarity of his phrasing to my own opening line, it felt like a confirmation that somehow my own vision had been passed along to me.

“I re­mem­ber stand­ing in the old church in Beth­le­hem, close to the spot where Je­sus was born, when the whole church was ring­ing hour after hour with splen­did hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voic­es I knew well, tell­ing each other of the Won­der­ful Night of the Sav­ior’s birth.”

Merry Christmas, all.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep 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.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

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