Christmas, 1865: A 33-year old Episcopalian minister rides through Palestine on horseback. Phillip Brooks is the man’s name, and he and his companions set out after dinner to visit the town of Bethlehem. They ride to the field where legend has it the shepherds saw the star. Around the town, they see shepherds still keeping watch over their flocks in those same fields. The pilgrims eventually make their way to the Church of the Nativity. At ten o’clock the liturgy begins, and it doesn’t end until three in the morning.
It’s no surprise that the experience will stay with Brooks. Three years later as Christmas approaches again, Brooks is now rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. He approaches his friend Lewis Redner, the church’s organist. Much like happens here and in churches all over, a Sunday-school children’s Christmas program is being prepared. Brooks explains that he’s written a little carol for the program, and asks Redner to see if he can put it to a tune. Redner will have some difficulties with that. The week before the program he’ll confess to Brooks that he hasn’t really gotten anywhere. And actually he’s been more focused on his Sunday-school lesson anyway.