“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
The line, of course, is from a beloved Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a song we will be singing in worship next Sunday, in fact. What worshipper doesn’t cherish the image of light beaming upon the tiny town of Bethlehem, upon the ramshackle stable where the Christ child dozes away, oblivious to the drama of the world? Who doesn’t celebrate the joy his birth brings to a world where joy so often seems in short supply? But what about the fears mentioned in this hymn? What has fear to do with Christmas?
The history of the carol provides a hint. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written in 1868 by the famed preacher Phillips Brooks. The Civil War had ended only three years earlier. Generals Lee and Grant had signed their peace accord at Appomattox and shaken hands on the deal. Battle-weary veterans from both sides had laid down their arms and trudged home. But half the nation still lay in ruins, and the country struggled to rebuild and reunite. The peace was just as challenging and trying as the war.
On the home front, north and south, families had been decimated by the carnage of the most brutal war America had ever known. Families counted themselves lucky if their family members had come home lacking an arm or a leg or an eye or shivering with PTSD. They knew the family member could easily have not come home at all. In 1868, it gave Americans some measure of peace and tranquility to imagine the humble Bethlehem stable as the place where hope and fear meet each other — and where joy emerges the ultimate victor. It was a reminder from Brooks that if Jesus came, humanity would change.
At the same time, there’s more fear in the Advent and Christmas stories than most of us care to be reminded of. It’s unmistakably present in John’s fiery preaching, of course, but we glimpse it also in the angel’s repeated greeting: “Fear not.” Yes, the angel says not to be afraid, but the fact that such an exhortation needs to be voiced at all is an admission that fear is an ever-present reality — then and now. You just don’t get that in the secular version of the coming holiday. It’s all light and no shadow, all merriment and no malevolence. As for those who turn for a moment from the relentless yuletide cheer to acknowledge some all-too-human problem or difficulty, they might be accused of lacking sufficient “Christmas spirit.
Clearly, John the Baptist wants no part of such a world — nor do the gospel-writers, as they bookend the Christmas story with angels who preface good news with “Fear not,” on one side, and with the soldiers of a jealous king who threatens the lives of young children, on the other. We don’t get to Christmas joy by detouring around fear. We get there, as Phillips Brooks knew, only by allowing the hopes and fears of all the years to meet one another in that little town of Bethlehem.
Prior to that moment in Bethlehem, we have another moment where the meeting of hope and fear resulted in deep and abiding joy. Mary has been ‘favored,’ chosen by God. But it may not have felt like it. The sheer excitement of the angel’s message to Elizabeth likely rested alongside the sheer terror of her predicament. A teenager, who is having a child out of wedlock and barely betrothed to an impoverished carpenter, who in turn is mulling a divorce to avoid scandal for them both. Mary, God’s favored one, will mother a child who will be later executed as a criminal. Not exactly a Hallmark movie. Not exactly the contents we’d include in a Christmas letter. The story is so familiar that we let its familiarity mask its scandal.
Of course, the ultimate scandal is that God would enter human life with all its struggles, depravity, violence, and corruption. God had appointed prophets, kings, and favored ones before. But never before had God entered the human fray so directly, intimately, and vulnerably. If we were to envision the nature of God’s feelings in this moment, perhaps there would also be a combination of hope and fear. Hope for what the entry of Jesus would hold. Fear for how God’s Son might be received.
And so it is equally remarkable that both Mary, and God presumably, meet this moment of equal parts hope and fear with joy. Joy is a recurring theme throughout Luke’s gospel. The joy of annuniciations and the births of John and Jesus recurs in the joy of forgiveness, healings, raising the dead, and receiving the marginalized and forgotten that occurs throughout the adult ministry of Jesus. Appropriately, at the end of this Gospel, following Jesus’ life, at a time when fear must have threatened to overwhelm hope, the disciples return to Jerusalem with joy and are in the Temple praising God. The gospels describe a God, embodied in Jesus, who brings joy to expression in human experience, and that joy is palpable, remarkable, inspirational, and never ceasing. When Jesus came, or even was foretold to be coming, Mary changed.
Viewing the television cartoon, A Charlie Brown Christmas, is a holiday tradition for many people. A favorite scene is when Linus, standing on a bare stage, recites the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke. That scene nearly didn’t make it into the show. TV network executives thought it too religious, and the reading from Luke simply too lengthy. But the producers persisted, the scene stayed and it became a cherished moment.
There’s one feature of that scene that not many people notice. During his recitation, at the moment when he quotes the angel saying, ‘Fear not,’ Linus does something unexpected. Have you ever noticed? He drops his security blanket. Anyone who’s familiar with the character of Linus knows he’s never without his blanket. Over the years of drawing his comic strip, Charles Schulz would occasionally deprive Linus of his blanket — such as when the mischievous Snoopy briefly steals it. Every time this happens, this otherwise cool, calm and wise-beyond-his-years character dissolves into frenzied angst. Linus simply cannot be without his blanket. Except in this moment, when he’s standing on stage reciting the Christmas story. With the Christ child on his mind and the angel’s call to release fear in his heart, he doesn’t need it. His body changes, his mind is engaged, and his heart fills with joy as he shares this centuries old story with his peers, who may be hearing it for the first time. It’s subtle, but clear – when the story of Jesus came, the character of Linus changed.
The 18th-century English painter and poet William Blake had a remarkable and transformative imagination when it came to possibilities of joyful change. All his life, Blake cultivated a naive openness to the world around him. He writes, “I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eye of a miser a gold coin is far more beautiful than the sun and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. As a man is so he sees. When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire something like a gold piece? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’”
Henri Nouwen writes a similar sentiment. “Advent does not lead to nervous tension stemming from expectation of something spectacular about to happen. On the contrary, it leads to a growing inner stillness and joy allowing me to realize that he for whom I am waiting has already arrived and speaks to me in the silence of my heart.”
Or consider the profound wisdom of chaplain Judy Holmes-Jensen, who writes, “I am a chaplain in a hospital where I serve folks in a unique cultural mix of urban and rural poor outside of a large metropolitan area. I am present for heartache, bad news, and end of life choices daily. As I have thought about the intersection of these things I find myself reflecting on how joy does not necessarily mean happy applause. Joy is a spiritual fruit, cultivated in hard soil, watered by hope and surviving when the sun has somehow scorched your heart. It takes root in faithfulness and community despite the environment, and the praise comes when -- unseen by those too far removed -- compassion, love, kindness and tenderness sing forth.”
Compassion, love, kindness, and tenderness sing forth. Much like Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her encounter with Elizabeth, with the song that bursts forth from her. Much like Linus, with the joyful news of Christ’s birth story tumbling out of his mouth to soothe the wailing hopelessness of Charlie Brown. Much like the church, in every age, as we are changed by the power of this season, and are invited to model embodiments of joy in a world where the ‘hopes and fears of all the years are met’ in the person of Jesus.
May sing joyfully let our lives sing forth with compassion, love, kindness, and tenderness, not just in this Advent and Christmas seasons, but in our whole lives. Amen.