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  • Canon Adrian Daffern

Bethlehem Down

I am going to take a risk this week. I am going to tell you how I am. Not how I am feeling – but how I actually am. I am depressed. Not down in the dumps, or fed up, or just tired. I am depressed. I know what I need to do when I am like this, having had time off through mental illness some years ago. By taking exercise, cognitive therapy, and attempting to manage my time properly, I can get through hopefully without medication or needing to be signed off, even though I know I am ill.

I knew for sure on Monday. It had been a very difficult weekend. I had lost all my planned time off for essential and necessary reason, and had not slept well for days. I needed to record a piece on the organ for the diocesan staff online carol service, and Devin came to record me. It’s a piece that is securely in my repertoire, and has been for over thirty years. But I couldn’t play it. I simply could not make my fingers do what my brain was telling them to do. We had seven attempts at recording it. And then gave up. And I went upstairs to my office and wept. So right now I’m not much in the mood for ding-donging merrily on high. But there is one carol that really hits the spot. Bruce Blunt’s poem Bethlehem Down was set most magically to music by the Anglo-Welsh early 20th century composer Peter Warlock. These are the words:

When he is King we will give him the King’s gifts, Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown, "Beautiful robes," said the young girl to Joseph, Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down. Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold, Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold. When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets, Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown, He that lies now in the white arms of Mary, Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down. Here he has peace and a short while for dreaming, Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold, Mary for love, and for lullaby music Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

All of you know the deep realities of life. You're experts. You know about joy and pain. You know what it is to laugh and cry. What it is to weep over a new-born, and at a graveside. You know how great life can be. And just how rubbish it can be too.


Bethlehem Down reminds me that God does too. To say ‘the Word became flesh’ is to say that God is an expert in the deep realities of life. Because he is born in us, he knows us inside out. He invites us to know him in just the same way. Not from the outside. From the inside.


Because that’s what the words of a better-known carol, which we sing every year, most truly mean:

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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