Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go to Bethlehem at Christmas? In 1865, a clergyman named Phillips Brooks, did just that when he traveled to the Holy Land. During Christmas week, he and his friends took a horse ride into Bethlehem. He wrote about it in a letter home: “It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. . . . Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star…”
A few years later, Mr. Brooks was meditating over what he had seen on that trip, when he wrote the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We know it:
O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.
What a lovely image of a holy night. But doesn’t this bucolic image really take on some muscle in his last line about “hopes and fears” being met in the birth of the Christ child?
Our Christmas story as we know it contains both hope and fear. And it is also full of surprises!
Hope for the promised Messiah who would be a military hero, took a surprising turn when it became hope in the birth of a helpless baby.
Hope that the parents of this special child would be treated with honor and welcomed into a comfortable place, took a surprising turn when it was replaced by a stable behind the inn. It was quite a surprise to have the most influential person in all history born with only farm animals as witnesses.
Our Christmas story took a turn for the worse when fear entered in. Upon hearing of Jesus’ birth, the fearful and insecure Herod panicked and used his power to order his soldiers to seek out the child and murder him. Herod’s troops obeyed and slaughtered many infants. But the “Holy family” turned “Refugee family” escaped to Egypt. Oh can’t we just go back to the beautiful night of the birth – the stillness of Bethlehem, the everlasting Light, the dreamless sleep and the silent stars?
Yes, of course we can, as many times as we like. For it is a beautiful gift to us. But let us also not forget that the advent of the Christ child becomes powerfully significant and relevant to the world, when it begins to live in the same world that we live in – full of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, full of fears and change, and full of God’s surprising redefinitions.
As you go to the stable in Bethlehem in your hearts this Christmas to praise the Christ child, may you find joy in your faith, and in the truth expressed so well by Mr. Brooks – that all of your hopes and fears are finally met in this incredible gift of love from God.
I wish you and your loved ones Peace, and a very Blessed Christmas!
Yours in Christ’s Service,
Rev. Linda Hey