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.

For Christ is born of Mary–
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming,
But, in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in–
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

~Phillips Brooks
I could almost picture it: the tiny town of Bethlehem asleep that night. All was dark and still, countless snores in the humble buildings that night punctuated the silence. Maybe a dog barked or a wolf howled. There were no cars, no public transportations systems running all night. No street lights kept the town perpetually lit with a dingy glow. No furnaces heated the houses; the sleepers piled the blankets on and settled in for another night like any other. Why should this one be any different? As I listened to the instrumental arrangement by Linda McKechnie of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with a Debussy piece (it’s on one of my favorite CD’s–Hymnworks Christmas), I ran the words through my head, cherishing the stillness.

“The hopes and fears of all the years/ Are met in thee tonight,” arrested my attention. Somehow I had never noticed the combination of those words in that song before. Hope and fear seem so very distantly removed from each other–one is sunshine, the other dismay; one we want, the other we spend our lives running from; one we dream about, the other we feel stuck with. Right? Still, it’s set me to wondering how closely the two are tied.

Thinking about sugar cookies puts it into perspective for me. My grandmothers love to bake cookies, but for me, baking cookies is a daunting task. And no cookies are more fearsome to me than sugar cookies. They take so much work! Rolling out the dough, cutting the shapes, keeping an eye on them in the oven, and finally decorating them–thoughts of the process exhaust me even now (or is it the lateness of the hour at which i type?)! So when my aunt suggested that we make sugar cookies last Christmas, I cringed inwardly. But I do enjoy working at projects and was ready to literally roll up my sleeves and tackle the project. The dough had already been made: all that remained was the task of producing pleasant-looking shapes. I hadn’t made sugar cookies for a very long time, but I had the basic idea, so I dove in. And that’s when I discovered what I had feared: the dough would not cooperate with me. It knew I was more afraid of it than it was of me. Mom came in to see me wrestling with it and took over–first to demonstrate that flour was the answer, then to become part of the assembly line. Eventually the dough was obeying even my commands, and the production was going. My aunt and my sister took charge of the decorating, and soon we had containers of beautiful sugar cookies.

Hope and fear join hands in the process of making sugar cookies. We make them because we hope that they will be fun to make; we hope they will taste good; we hope they will look beautiful; we hope that people will be pleased with them. But we fear at the same time . . . at least, I do. I fear that they will look ugly, that they will taste awful, that no one will like them, and–worst of all–that they will not be worth the trouble it takes to make them! Yes, I am exaggerating a little with that “fear” stuff. But looking at sugar-cookie-making helps me to understand how hopes and fears can be twins.

Basically, every hope is also a fear: we want something, and we are vulnerable to pain if that hope is disappointed. So we live lives of hope and fear. We fear disappointment. We fear loss. We fear rejection. We fear pain. We fear failure. We fear inadequacy. We fear evil. We fear disaster. We fear insignificance. We fear helplessness. We fear the future. We fear uncertainty. We fear destiny. We fear the unknown. We fear . . . we fear . . . we even begin to fear hope sometimes. It’s hard to figure out sometimes which hurts more: the hoping or the fearing. And so we all cope with it in various ways. Every religion must deal with these two things. The religion of Buddhism is built around banishing this fear stuff by banishing hope altogether. Sometimes I try that, too: don’t hope–it hurts too much!

At first this song seems to make an outlandish claim–that all the hopes and fears of the ages could meet in that one town on that one night. But upon examining that claim further, I think I can see how it is true. In coming to God, I come with a multitude of hopes and fears. I hope to be accepted; I fear the rejection I know I deserve (and so does everyone else because we know how much trouble we carry around in our heart of hearts). I hope for success; I fear the failures I carry around with me. The unknown terrifies me: it could bring good, but so often it brings bad. I fear my own helplessness to handle all that life throws my way or I fear a time when I may be helpless. And in facing the God of the universe I can’t help but wonder “will He notice me? will I be valuable to Him?” Put your own fears there, and you will find that every hope and every fear is met at the manger in Bethlehem. The account in Luke tells us that “all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.” We wonder, too.

The little town that night housed a tiny infant as human as they come–probably as ugly as any other newborn is. As I come to the manger this Christmas, I wonder with Proclus, a character in “The Star” (an Adventures in Odyssey episode by Focus on the Family), “Are you the Hope of the World, little one?” Could this little child be the hope for ALL my fears? Because I certainly need some hope. I need more than just a set of directions to follow: I need someone who knows how to make the cookies of my life turn out better than I can ever hope to make them by myself. I need Him, Emmanuel–God with us.

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