‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’……
These words from the Carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ have been circling my mind for weeks. ‘Hopes and Fears’ dominate many minds as I write this in late November, wondering if lockdown will ease and we will be able to meet with our loved ones; wondering if the promised vaccine will be effective; fearing the financial insecurity the Pandemic has brought to many. The human heart longs for peace and security in a troubled world which often denies both.
Jesus himself was born in uncertain times; Israel was occupied by Rome and there were periodic uprisings – often arising from the remote, repressed areas like Galilee. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel miles to the city of David, Bethlehem, to register in the census. It was the generosity of an Innkeeper which afforded Mary the privacy of a stable for Jesus birth. ‘How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given’. God’s answer to human longings to give us Jesus; ‘a wondrous gift.’
Many fraught travellers in Bethlehem that night slept on unaware; but ‘the morning stars together proclaim the holy birth’ and angels spoke to poor shepherds who hurried down from nearby fields to visit the holy family. The experience changed them… for they returned ‘glorifying and praising God’. But Mary ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’
The words of this Carol take us on a journey from the geographical location of Bethlehem, where its author Rev Phillips Brooks had stood on Christmas Eve 1865, to a spiritual place – the human soul. Bethlehem’s streets beneath the stars become our hearts beneath our hopes and fears. Something eternal can happen for everyone, the carol is saying, when we accept this ‘wondrous gift’ and discover – like Mary and the Shepherds and millions of ordinary believers since – the peace and joy of offering him the stable of our hearts, ‘where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.’
Many years later, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus said to his closest friends: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
The carol communicates the profound truth that Christmas is only Christmas when it happens in your heart:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
And that birth is not just for one day in the year, but for every day. So, as we enter the uncertainty of 2021, I invite you to pray, ‘Oh, come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!’
‘May the God of Hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust in him.’
Rev Becky Richards, December 2020