“The Hopes and Fears of all the Years are met in thee tonight.”
This lyric from “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” is one that brings into focus the depth of what lies inside the ancient Bible story, the manger scene at Bethlehem – and an invitation to reflect anew on the amazing, mysterious gift of Emmanuel, God with us.
I’ve listened, as you probably have, to the versions of this song from some of our most cherished crooners; Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is especially silky smooth as she caresses each note of this old carol, her rendition leading to a place of nostalgia and eventual reflection. As I have snuck in my doses of early Christmas carols, I have also found myself drawn to the nativity scenes that are on exhibit on stores this time of year.
At Christmas time we have a special invitation to draw close to the Nativity, to rest for a moment at the place of our own little creches. Usually nostalgia is a point of entry as some of us rearrange the figures in our internal retelling of the Christmas story. It’s fine to look with eyes that soften the hard edges of the story, or lend a gentle glow to a strange, brilliant star. But let’s pause without fiddling with figures and reflect on the depth of human longing that lies beneath the nostalgia of our collective gaze.
At the manger, there is in evidence the timelessness of hope cherished by humanity—hope for a better world, for a place to belong, for true love and, dare we say it, shalom—a peace brought about by the leveling of our social and spiritual landscape.
There is also deep in our humanity a shared fearful past: fear that this is as good as it gets; fear of meaninglessness; fear of ultimate loneliness.
Christmas is a time when, like the shepherds, we witness the surreal scene of the Choir of Angels who break through the great divide between heaven and earth and cry to us, “Be not afraid!” That cry alone is an invitation to go farther, to reach beyond mere nostalgia, and to embrace the possibility that God is always up to something that is good. That cry is our invitation to both the reality of human life and the holy mystery of the manger.
At the manger, God took hope and fear and held them side by side, smoothing them, melding them, transforming them, until those gathered beheld the fullness of the gift of Divine Love. May your Christmas-tide be an experience of this amazing gift. May that love be in evidence as we bear witness to both the realities and the possibilities of the manger.
Blessings to you and yours this Christmas-tide,