Last night around 1:00am, I stood in a park across the street from our home. Gazing up at the brilliance of a sky filled with stars and meteors, my mind was saturated by the prodigal grandeur and glory. Looking at the stars I felt strangely hopeful. Today as I hear the reports of tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, my heart hurts. As our four children have grown, rarely would a fire engine or ambulance race by me, without a twinge of a “where are my kids” fear. According to current reports, the parents of close to 20 children, in one community, have realized one of our greatest fears.
One of the most authentic Christmas songs we sing is the classic by Phillips Brooks. You know the words, “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.” We have these silent, night visions of Christmas…visions of peace on earth or at least in my home…visions of comforting angelic encounters…worshipful moments quietly, restfully pondering awe-filled experiences. But that’s not everyone’s experience of Christmas is it?
A few years ago, someone shared a special Christmas memory with me. It was a great family-moment kind of experience, but she ended the e-mail with the words, “I’ve talked to so many people lately who really have no good Christmas memories. And it seems wrong, so unchristmas, unless you hang out in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story. In Matthew 2, a group of magi come to King Herod in Jerusalem. They told Herod that they had come to worship a new born king. Upon hearing these words, Herod and all of Jerusalem was troubled, stirred up by this talk of a new King. Everyone was stirred up because both Herod and the Caesar of Rome had a habit of killing people and destroying communities whenever their rule and power were threatened. The story continues with Mary and Joseph getting word that they need to run for their life because Herod wants to kill Jesus. Another peaceful Christmas moment. Not exactly our idea of a great Christmas tradition. It gets worse. When Herod finds out that he’s played the fool to three wise men, he goes on a murderous rampage, killing all the baby boys two and under in the Bethlehem district. Not exactly a Kodak moment.
There is an essay on Christmas, called “The Battle of Bethlehem.” The author focuses on the last part of that first verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I have to admit, I never noticed the imagery behind those words — hopes and fears. Can you imagine that? All the hopes and all the fears of all the years colliding in one little town. Great hope and great fear locked in unseen mortal combat.
What is hope? We use hope as a synonym for the word “wish.” Biblical hope is not a wish, it’s a fact that merely hasn’t taken place yet. It’s a confident assertion about what we know to be true even though we have yet to see it. The Hebrew word has more to do with waiting than it does with wishing. We wait; we don’t wish. Biblical hope is a sure steady looking forward to the future; a calm assurance that no matter how bad things are, no matter how dark the night, a time is coming when life and the world will be set right.
The time of that first Christmas was a time of extreme poverty. Jesus was born in a country ruled by brutal tyrants who did not value life; a world where your friends either starve or hang on a cross. He grew up in a world where the poor were neglected and the only people who have good news were the rich and powerful. He was born in a world where the dark just kept getting darker.
But then this heavenly messenger comes to a young woman named Mary and tells her that in her womb will be formed, the Son of God, from her womb will be born, the true giver of peace, the real Savior is coming. And this hope, this subversive begins to form in her heart. The word subversive refers to an attempt to overthrow something. Christmas is the start of a subversive effort to overthrow the darkness, to overthrow evil, to overthrow fear.
This is our hope. It hasn’t fully happened yet. But I believe it will.
Some will wonder how a good God could let this happen, especially at Christmas time. Perhaps God let Christmas happen, precisely because we live in this kind of time. I don’t have the answers. I can’t even imagine what this community is going through. I can’t imagine. But I can pray.
I will pray for hope.