“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
As a child, I was always mystified by this line from the carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem. I understood something of the hope of Christmas. I knew something of how that hope was expressed in Jesus. I had good Sunday School teachers, parents; a fine pastor! But what about the fears? What role could fear possibly play in the wondrous and beautiful story of the first Christmas?
The nativity images that most of us carry from childhood are similarly weighted. A smiling Mary; a beaming Joseph. Kindly looking animals; polite and gentlemanly shepherds. All surrounding a chubby, ‘no crying he makes’ baby who lies contentedly and comfortably in a soft bundle of golden hay. It’s a carefully edited image that evokes little of the fearfulness that would have characterized that first Christmas night.
The fear of a young mother about to bear her first child, under far than normal circumstances, alone in a cattle shed. The fear of a poor father unable to provide his family with proper shelter. The fear of simple shepherds startled by the unexpected appearance of heavenly emissaries. The fear of a jealous and vengeful king whose terrors would soon force the young family to flee to a distant land as refugees.
But this was the context in which God acted in a way that was so powerful and profound that in a few day’s time, hundreds of millions will gather in churches all around the world to retell the story of Christmas. We will gather to be reminded that God entered into the world in a very special way through the person of Jesus us Nazareth. In the midst of so much that is dark and frightening, Christ comes as Saviour to reveal anew the good news of God’s gracious and loving intention toward the world.
Hope and fear did, indeed, meet on that first Christmas night. And they’ve been meeting there every since! And while some of us don’t know what it’s like to experience feelings of fearfulness at Christmas time; many of us do. There are many whose lives are insecure, many who lack what many of us take for granted; people who are sick, who are poor, who are lost, who are lonely or fearful about their futures. There are many people, both far and near, whose candles of hope have very dimly burning wicks, many for whom life does not seem at all ‘calm or bright!”
But fear will not get the final word for at Christmas! Once again we will be reminded that God is alive and well and doing great and wondrous things on planet earth. That is the heart and soul of the Christmas story – the story of a God who loves creation so intensely that he chooses to enter into the very heart of our creaturely existences – not just one day of the year – but for all three hundred and sixty five! And the evidence is all around us!
It is there in people who are kind; people who are generous; who serve their neighbours with grace and humility. It is there in people who work for justice, who advocate on behalf of those who have not voice. It is there in people whose sacrificial service goes even to the point of laying down their life for another! This is the light of Christ’s presence in the world today. This is the light of divine hope, a light that casts out fear and scatters the darkness. This is the call of the angels who bid us “Fear not!”
On behalf of your friends and colleagues who serve the Eastern Synod and its ministries, I wish you and your dear ones a holy and blessed celebration of our Saviour’s birth. It is our great honour and privilege to be partners with you. Thank-you for your faithful witness to the Gospel and for shining forth the light of God’s presence in your ministries. You are precious and your service in the Lord is not in vain! Have a very, merry Christmas!