The Hopes and Fears of All the Years: Christmas 2014

Christmas, 1865: A 33-year old Episcopalian minister rides through Palestine on horseback. Phillip Brooks is the man’s name, and he and his companions set out after dinner to visit the town of Bethlehem. They ride to the field where legend has it the shepherds saw the star. Around the town, they see shepherds still keeping watch over their flocks in those same fields. The pilgrims eventually make their way to the Church of the Nativity. At ten o’clock the liturgy begins, and it doesn’t end until three in the morning.

It’s no surprise that the experience will stay with Brooks. Three years later as Christmas approaches again, Brooks is now rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. He approaches his friend Lewis Redner, the church’s organist. Much like happens here and in churches all over, a Sunday-school children’s Christmas program is being prepared. Brooks explains that he’s written a little carol for the program, and asks Redner to see if he can put it to a tune. Redner will have some difficulties with that. The week before the program he’ll confess to Brooks that he hasn’t really gotten anywhere. And actually he’s been more focused on his Sunday-school lesson anyway.

Late one Saturday night, though, Redner suddenly awoke with a melody in his ear. He grabbed some notation paper and scribbled it out. Sunday morning came, and before Sunday School he sketched in some harmony. He thought it was suitable.

Brooks and Redner figured they had a reasonable offering for that year’s Christmas program. Redner said that neither of them thought that their effort would have any remembrance beyond that one parish program in 1968. You will see how wrong they were about that if you will please turn in your hymnals to #

O little town of Bethlehem, 
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
The silent stars go by:

This is a peaceful image, but much of its power comes from its ordinary-ness. A deep, dreamless sleep, stillness, silence. It is a night like a thousand thousand other nights. It is our world, where so much may seem to happen during the day but where, in the end, so little ever really changes. Some will wake to carefree days, others to despair. So sleeps the world. Is there anything else?

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years 
Are met in thee to-night.

The carol is invoking John 1; “the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It is in the ordinary stillness of a quiet, sleepy town that heaven kisses earth. The Everlasting Light shines forth. Not in a blinding flash that rent the sky and shattered the silence, but a quiet flicker. What happened that night, what happened so quietly, was it really the meeting of every human hope and every human fear? Could it be true that all our questions are answered in this out-of-the-way little town, on this sleepy night?

For Christ is born of Mary;
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep 
Their watch of wondering love.

It’s true. Most men and women missed the magic. They slept right through it, slept through the miracle of miracles. The angels kept watch, the angels knew, and they still keep watch even as we still miss the miracles. But should you ever wake up in the middle of the night with a new melody in your ear, you’ll know where it came from. Should you ever wake up from the sleep of your soul, and feel a touch of that divine wonder, you’ll suddenly recognize those angels filling the space between the spaces all around you: their watch of wondering love.

O morning stars, together 
Proclaim the holy birth;
And praises sing to God the King, 
And peace to men on earth.

What peace on earth? Is there any such thing? Could there ever be? Not as the world gives it. This child is born to war, born hunted and pursued, and destined to die young and violently at the hands of wicked and violent men. But His Kingdom is peace, for those who will receive it, and this night is the beginning of its in-breaking. Christmas is not a truce, it is an invasion. Herod knows what it means. Praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth. 

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.

Christmas happens in silence. “Silent Night” is the most beloved carol of all time. Most of the carols speak of it in their own way, the stillness. Some of you perhaps haven’t found that yet this Christmas. It’s not too late. God has the blessings of his heaven to impart to you, a Word to speak right to your heart. It only takes a little silence.

No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, 
The dear Christ enters in.

Are their souls here tonight who will receive Him still? Will you receive Him? 

There is a missing verse here. Come back for the Solemnity of Mary, New Year’s Eve and Day, and I’ll tell you about it. But tonight, let’s finish together with the beautiful prayer of the last verse. 

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

Our Lord Emmanuel.

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