The Christmas Hymn G. K. Chesterton’s Wife Gave Us

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ColorFrances-noise reductionIn 1917, near the end of first world war, G. K. Chesterton’s wife, Frances, wrote the song “How Far Is It to Bethlehem?” It was published in the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols. Her biographer, Nancy Carpentier Brown, explains the significance of the song and reads several of the lyrics in light of the Chesterton’s struggle with infertility.

Truly, “we have naught” but “little smiles and little tears” to offer; but in these we find the entirety of a longing heart—a heart that throbs with each recurrence of the question. How far is it? Shall we…? Can we…? May we…? If we…? We look from ourselves to Another, and the questioning increases in intensity. Will He…?

The Christ Child at the ending of the poem is the perfect answer, an answer not yet fully attained. Is the ‘heart’s desire’ something that truly can be found? In faith, the poet asserts that it can and will be. Here is eschatology encapsulated: we taste, like the imagined dreamer, that which we will only fully discover after death and in union with the Divine. What we hope for, what we long for, is already realized in our aching, unsatisfied hearts.

Her question—How far is it to Bethlehem?—seen in light of her own life, becomes vibrantly real. How far is she from the illusive dream—in her case, the dream of maternity? Frances suffered from infertility, longing for babies of her own to hold. But while the medical world could not offer a cure, she consistently saw hope in the Nativity scene, in the Babe in the manger. How far is it to Bethlehem? Frances asks herself, and then she answers beautifully, hopefully, and faithfully, “not very far.” In fact, it is as close as the manger itself must be to those who approach it. 

My favorite version of this song is sung by David James, who sounds a lot like Josh Groban (see here).

Below are the lyrics and a couple of choral versions.

How far is it to Bethlehem? 
Not very far. 
Shall we find the stable room 
Lit by a star?

Can we see the little Child? 
Is He within? 
If we lift the wooden latch 
May we go in? 

May we stroke the creatures there 
Oxen or sheep? 
May we peep like them and see 
Jesus asleep?

If we touch His tiny hand 
Will He awake? 
Will He know we’ve come so far 
Just for His sake? 

Great kings have precious gifts 
And we have naught 
Little smiles and little tears 
Are all we brought.

For all weary children 
Heaven must weep 
Here, on His bed of straw 
Sleep, children, sleep.

God in His mother’s arms 
Babes in the byre 
Sleep, as they sleep who find 
Their heart’s desire.  

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