(Go here for lead sheets and chord charts.)


In a byre near Bethlehem
Passed by many a wandering stranger
The most precious Word of Life
Was heard gurgling in a manger
For the good of us all

By the Galilean Lake
Where the people flocked for teaching
The most precious Word of Life
Fed their mouths as well as preaching
For the good of us all

And He’s here when we call Him
Bringing health, love, and laughter
To life now and ever after
For the good of us all

Quiet was Gethsemane
Camouflaging priest and soldier
The most precious Word of Life
Took the world’s weight on His shoulder
For the good of us all

On the hill of Calvary
Place to end all hope of living
The most precious Word of Life
Breathed His last and died, forgiving
For the good of us all

In a garden, just at dawn
Near the grave of human violence
The most precious Word of Life
Cleared His throat and ended silence
For the good of us all

Words: John L. Bell, 1987
Music: Wild Mountain Thyme; arr. Zac Hicks, 2011
©1987 Wild Goose Resource Group, Iona Community, Scotland
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We didn’t write this song, but we love it too much for it to go unrecorded, as not a single version of it exists online, to our knowledge.  So we attempted to set the Iona Community’s “The Word of Life (In a Byre Near Bethlehem)” in a fitting musical and atmospheric setting.  (“Byre” is another word for barn, by the way.)  The recording sounds like a small pub band with a raucous men’s chorus.  The musicality is not at all fancy, but that’s not what this song is about.  “In a Byre” (that’s what we call it around here) is all about its story and melody.

The Scottish and the Irish sure know how to write songs.  “In a Byre” has been around since 1987, but we discovered it only a few years ago.  It is the first relatively new Christmas song we’ve heard that absolutely everyone loves to sing the moment they open their lips.  In this song, the traditional worship folks lie down with contemporary worship folks, which is as shocking as Isaiah’s prophecies of the fraternization of lions with lambs and children with snakes.

What makes this song so great?

Perhaps it’s the traditional Irish tune, “Wild Mountain Thyme,” made popular by many songs and instrumentals.  The melody is beautiful…and flexible.  There are some nice renditions of the tune out there that are slow, inspiring Celtic ballads.  Then there are romping pub versions like ours.

Perhaps it’s the provocative and distinctly flavored text.  When our small, burly men’s chorus sat down to record the track, we first began reflecting on the text to get some inspiration.  Here’s my distillation of that discussion:

  • It is the anti-Christmas-carol Christmas carol—not sappy, schmaltzy, or sentimental.
  • It vividly and accurately summarizes the life and ministry of Christ, giving the big picture context for Jesus’ birth.
  • It highlights the fact that it is not only Christ’s death which is beneficial to us, but His life, too (in theological terms, both Christ’s passive and active obedience are displayed as meritorious for us).  This is hammered home in the repeated phrase, “for the good of us all.”
  • It is inherently communal, not individualistic.  The song’s text and musical style both lend themselves to corporate—not solo—singing.
  • It is vivid and earthy, not overly spiritualized (e.g. “cleared His throat and ended silence”).
  • It concretizes joy.  Instead of saying, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” it says, “And He’s here when we call Him, bringing health, love, and laughter.”  Since when have we sung of laughter the result of Jesus’ presence among us?
  • It is raucously celebrative—a great counterbalance to Christmas tunes that merely highlight more reverent celebration.
  • It strips our inhibitions to praise with abandon.  The Irish musical style naturally does this to us, and the colloquial nature of the text perfectly follows suit.
  • It balances transcendence and immanence in sometimes shocking juxtaposition (e.g. “The most precious Word of Life was heard gurgling in a manger”).

So, listen to the track.  Better yet, sing with the track.  And see if it does not give you a fresh vision of what Christmas (and, in fact what life in Christ) is all about.