‘O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see you lie!’
I’ve learned this is a favourite Christmas Carol for many communities. It’s a quiet carol, full of hope, set in starlight and dreams. It’s an especial favourite for Blue Christmas services, when we meet together at Christmas with a profound sense of what is not – aware of the disconnect between our real life experience and the happiness and exultation we’re supposed to feel at Christmas.
Maybe we’re grieving a loved one. Maybe we’re estranged from family. Maybe we have no home to gather in. Maybe we have insufficient money to put food on the table, let alone bonbons and Christmas lights. Maybe we’re just not in a space to sing out loud and strong, full of joy and exultation, as if we’ve got it all together and on top of things. But is this what Christmas is about?
There’s something in this carol that touches into that disconnect – and all we would hope to be different. There’s no sense of triumph or trust in the security of human achievement. It seems to acknowledge our fragility, the precariousness of life, the need for humility and how we reach out in hope from a deep sense of need.
With our experiences over this year of living with the pandemic, many of us are feeling different about this Christmas – perhaps even a sense of disconnect or uncertainty. We may be glad about being released into new freedoms, but life is still not quite the same as it was before.
This is exactly what the seasons and the stories of Advent and Christmas are about:
knowing that our world and our lives are not the way they ought to be; hoping for a different future;
and seeing that happen in the birthing and living, and the dying and rising of Jesus.
In Advent, we hear the cries of the prophets, and are invited to join in their hopes for a world restored – where broken hearts are mended, prisoners released, the oppressed brought good news, the dispossessed returned to their land.
We hear the visions and hopes of the psalmists in their songs, longing for a world where “righteousness and peace kiss”.
It’s a cosmic vision of restoration that goes back centuries, and we are invited to be stirred and moved to join in this hope for all creation to be made whole.
And at Christmas, we hear how God enters in to this messiness of life, in Jesus, to lift it up.
These are stories that tell who God is interested in – and it’s those same ones the prophets and the psalmists cried out for. The dispossessed or exploited, those overlooked or filled with heartache. Teenage girls and night-shift workers.
Maybe now we’d add, those trying to live on Newstart, the elderly waiting for an Aged Care Package, people marginalised by racist attitudes, those living with mental illness or disability, First Peoples seeking a voice to Parliament, and a groaning planet.
God is willing to give all for this, coming in Jesus – so deep and profound is God’s love for this world and all who dwell in it.
In Advent and Christmas, this immense vision and hope is what we are invited into. We are invited to touch into our own hopes, to know they are the hopes of generations and to see their fulfilment in Jesus as the One who is God-with-us, who brings us into the dream of God for a flourishing world.
In the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, at the end of the first verse, we hear the line:
“the hopes and fears of all the years are met in you tonight.”
May our hope be deepened,
may our hearts be broken open and strengthened,
may we be caught up in the healing work of God in Christ Jesus this Christmas.