|Photo Credit: Kent G Baker on Flickr.com
This year, in his Christmas message, the Primate (the head of the Anglican Church of Canada) has asked us to consider reflecting on the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” This is not hard for me to do, because it is one of my favourite Christmas hymns and I have appreciated and thought about it for many years. It is especially important this year as we witness scenes of political upheaval and unrest in Bethlehem today. Perhaps the hymn can have even more meaning for us this year because of this fact. International politics can certainly distract from the true Christmas message. But then so can many of the trappings of a typical secular commercial Christmas.
Well, it has seemed that the pace of life has just become more and more frantic over the last few weeks. It happens every year, of course, with the Christmas rush rushing through like a freight train travelling at high speed. It’s just that this year somehow that Christmas pre-season seemed to be more compressed – time seems to be moving faster the older I get – and so it has seemed a bit more frantic this year.
It helps remarkably that we as a family have more or less pulled ourselves out of the commercial Christmas game. We never really have done the huge gift-giving that seems so connected to the frantic reality that I witness. Yet, and I don’t know how this happened, but my annual eye exam was booked a year ago to land on yesterday – the day before Christmas Eve, and, you’ll never guess where my optometrist’s office is: Mapleview Mall – yes the very heart of the Babylonian captivity itself!
I expected that I would have to park in Oakville and walk, but I was extremely lucky to get a parking space. I arrived early and as I wasn’t there to buy anything, I was just able to people watch instead. People were waiting in line to see Santa. Many people have all kinds of bundles and gifts. Several – especially the men - had that kind of panicked look on their faces as time inexorably marched on. When it was time to leave the parking lot while I was waiting in line approaching the three-way stop everyone was taking their turn until one woman driving an SUV with a huge red nose on the front grill and with antlers sticking out the sides from the back windows cut in front and was instantly honked by another car. She rolled down her window and made a very rude gesture while she sailed on through the intersection. That image really summed up for me the commercial aspect of the season which provides us with such a complexity of emotions including love of family, impatience with others, and such expectations which probably no one can fully meet
Thank God that the real meaning of Christmas isn’t complicated at all but is really very simple. It’s the Jesus story – the story of his birth all those centuries ago in Bethlehem.
In great opposition to the commercial theme of Christmas, the Jesus story is quiet and still and holy. Despite the sound of the glorious anthems and music in Church which I love, despite the words of the readings and the sermon, the message of the Jesus Story is felt, more than understood, in a mysterious and perfectly silent peace. The anthems, the readings, the sermon all simply point to this mystery, they put the mystery into a setting, a container, but the mystery is received in awe and wonder in stillness. For me it is usually sometime during the distribution of Holy Communion that this mystery is received.
Of all of the Christmas hymns which I knew as a kid, it was “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which spoke to me the most. I felt its truth. “Above [Bethlehem’s] deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” Yes, that was right to me. Most of our life was like a dark and dreamless sleep when compared to the light of those silent stars and the truth to which they witnessed. And, yes, yet in our dark streets shines “the everlasting light.” Yes, holy things aren’t apart from the everyday, but the everlasting light shines in the midst of it all - sometimes invisibly, it seems, and yet perceivable. The lesson from Isaiah speaks of this light when it starts off, saying, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.”
Essential to the deep truth of this hymn are the words about, ‘how silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given’, and though, “no ear may hear his coming, ... where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” And the hymn ends with, “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” Emmanuel meaning “God with us.”
I must have been around eight when I remember really listening to the words of that hymn. I was left awe-struck by them. They were so real and true and deep. They left me feeling so excited and with a sense of immense privilege that God, who I had always assumed was far too great to be concerned with petty human affairs, actually rushed in to be with us - to abide with us.
Of course it wasn’t something which my eight-year-old brain really understood: how exactly did it all work? But then, today, it is equally not something which my 57-year-old brain really understands either. But even at the age of eight I knew that the truth of this mystery was something which can be known without having all the facts along with diagrams and a flowchart to explain it all.
This Jesus story is deep and true and meaningful – in stark contrast to the commercialism of a secular Christmas.
It has only been in the years since I was eight that I have come to a fuller appreciation of the mystery. I’ve learned some new words and read of some new images. Incarnation is probably the most helpful word to point toward the mystery. Anyone who knows Spanish knows that “Carne” means meat. In-carn-ation, then, means that God became flesh, or human. How and why God did that is certainly a mystery, but one which can be grasped at if one can begin to imagine the great love that God has for us. God is a lover whose love is so great that he wants to be right with us.
And God did it in the most amazing way - he came to us in the greatest humility - as a newborn baby. And not any baby - a baby born in the deepest poverty - laid in the animal’s feeding trough instead of a cradle. And the message was heard not by the royalty and the wealthy of the land, but by the humblest of people - the shepherds who lived outdoors with the animals which they looked after. This God, wanting to include everyone, came to us as the humblest so that no one should be left out.
As a kid, it would be after the late Christmas Eve service as I went outside with my family that I would always look up hoping that there would be no clouds and I would see the silent stars going by. For me, no matter where I lived, it was Bethlehem, and the great mystery had just taken place that night.
The deepest, truest part of that hymn is in the prayer of the fourth verse which prays to the holy child of Bethlehem to descend to us and be born in us today. God comes to us not only in the child born two thousand years ago, but he comes to us again and again, born in human hearts today. I have witnessed this amazing mystery of others being Jesus to me throughout my life. But more astounding than that is the thought, for each of us, that the holy child of Bethlehem is not only born in others, but is born even in ourselves.
I wish you all a joyous Christmas as we celebrate the true story: the Jesus story. May you truly experience the Jesus story this year. “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”