Monday, November 23, 2009

O Little Town of Hope

It is the time of year for all things sentimental and traditional. We feel the winds changing sometime in the autumn, and suddenly the frosty winds are here before we noticed how much we were in need of a cool breeze.

No doubt you are playing Christmas music already, even if you are sneaking it in your car. There are few of us who can completely strong arm the flood of Christmas until Thanksgiving leftovers have been deposited into our trashcans or thighs.

If you are a Seasonal Purist, you might be rolling your eyes at my bald audacity to talk about Christmas when *gasp* we haven't celebrated Thanksgiving yet. I'm sorry. I've been waiting to write about the following ideas for a good two months now. Be grateful I made it this long.

I admit that I have a harder and harder time each year. I sneak Christmas music like a closet glue sniffer. Something about the secrecy might even make it that much more exciting. The weird thing is, I am made sad by the arrival of Christmas cards in Target when Halloween costumes are still on display. I'm not about to celebrate this holiday year round, and yet I want to breathe just the slightest breath of its magic as I see it drawing ever closer.

Well, I'm already a bit ahead of myself. If you haven't picked up on my mention of Christmas music, you now know what you are about to read. I want to talk about the carols, with one particular carol in mind. Even if you are among those who detest and bemoan the commercialization of the Christmas holiday, you will feel at home in this blog. I don't intend to besmirch your Thanksgiving week by talk of Santa or Rudolph, and I won't tell you to drink eggnog (which is a frightfully bad tradition anyways, unless doctored by the good beverage folks from Kentucky). Try to be as Tiny Tim as possible, and if you do feel Grinchy, just keep it to yourself, as I have no need of those kinds of comments.

The Church will celebrate the season of Advent in just a few days, and in that vein, I write:

I've always loved Christmas carols. I've always been moved by them in a way that is special and unique as the songs themselves. There is a very good chance that this is simply because they are only sung during a specific time frame. For example, I feel somewhat nostalgic and warmhearted towards the truly hideous crochet/felt/yarn tree decoration with drooping red balls (I know, but that is what they are) that my mother puts on the coffee table/bookshelf/anywhere my dad won't find it and throw it away. The tree is old and frayed and in no way able to maintain any sense of decorating decorum. is familiar, it is quaint, and it marks the passing of time in a distinct and definite way. I'm quite tempted to compare the yarn tree with family members I can only tolerate during the holidays. But that would be very rude, and I fear the chastisement of my Maw Maw, who never talks bad about anybody.

As a lover of books and clever turn of phrase, I feel that the Christmas carols are a goldmine, a treasure trove, a multi-layered cake of delectable dynamic thought. I've recently been struck by a small portion of the carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem. I usually get mentally caught in the beauty of the words: "Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by". It reminds me somewhat of a Van Gogh painting, the idea of swirling and milky diffused light keeping a soft vigil over the city. But if we go forward just a few words, we arrive here: My Point.

How amazing is this statement? "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight"

Wow. There just isn't much to say at first if you really get the strength of such a claim. But then again, I always find a way to say something.

At first I was amazed as I thought of all the hopes and fears that occur just within my own being, let alone those of 'all the years'. How could all of this be met, and how in one evening with the work of a moment?

What I know is that it is pretty easy for us who believe in the Incarnate God to look backwards and say how wonderful it was for the babe to be born that night. Hindsight, as it is said, is perfect. But what about those who came long before that event? How could their hopes be met if they were no longer around to feel the change?

There were, we know, those who looked for and longed for the promised Messiah of old. There were old men with no teeth who stared into the sky, and leaned against a tree and shook their white heads. There were old women who poured water into clay pots and wondered. They hoped, and they hoped, and then...they hoped. If we look further back into the centuries, we would find those who hoped and weren't even aware in what this hope was placed.

The soul has a distinct and yet mysterious awareness of Something Else. We love, we feel, we weep. We yearn, and strive, and struggle. And even in the rarest of cases when all our hopes and dreams and loves and needs are met at a physical and emotional level...we know there is more. How flippant and easy for me in 2009 to say that the soul needs God. How different would my answer be if made in the year 9?! For what was the soul hoping and fearing all those years before the promise of the Christ?

God made the soul to yearn. The soul is inseparable from the idea of hope and expectancy. The soul indicates that physical life, in all its beauty and splendor, is not enough. What our soul knows is that even emotional satisfaction is not a substitute for...for....Something Else, Something More, Something!

I'm going to do something that makes Austin cringe. I'm going to quote Scripture out of context. If you aren't familiar with the Bible or Christian faith, this comes from the book of Job. In short, Job was a good guy who followed God and ended up getting totally and royally screwed by life, the universe, and anything else that came his way. Everybody he loved died, all his stuff got taken, and his own body started falling apart. If that had been me, the book probably would have been very different (aside from the obvious name change). I don't know that I would have had enough hope left in me to keep breathing. Job, in his self-titled book (ha!) says "What strength do I have, that I should still hope?" (Job 6:11 NIV)

And yet...he does! He somehow coerced that deep ache that masquerades as despair to show itself for what it was: hope.
I say that despair is a masquerade for hope, and I think that it actually might be true and not just something I say to make myself feel better. Hope is a positive thing. But when hope goes without deliverance, without relief, without its natural culmination into joy, it can become tainted.
Hope for a child turns dark when the child never comes, and the empty arms of a would-be mother are filled with despair.

Hope for healing turns dark when the body of a loved one breathes one final time, and the fervent expectancy finds solace in grief.

Hope for deliverance from oppression and tyranny and abuse just gets old, and I haven't got the slightest clue how those who suffered through slavery could keep on singing.

Austin asked me what I was going to say about 'the hopes and fears', because what does that mean in this context? How can both hopes and fears be met together? I think it is two sides of the same coin. Even the stoutest of heart, those with seemingly unwavering abilities to hope in the face of adversity, have fears. Hope without fear doesn't actually work, I don't think. If I knew without question that my soul would live when my body dies, there would be no place at all for hope. My natural fears tell me that the worst might happen, and yet I still hope. And I place my life, and my dreams, and even my fears in the hope that hope itself will come through.

The hopes and fears of the years before, and all the years yet to come, were met in the little town of Bethlehem. This is because there is really only one thing that the soul can hope and fear for at the same time. It was the only thing that could have saved the soul from its fears and given it back its hope. The old man leaning on a tree, the old woman pouring water, and this often pessimistic blogger have only one hope. I'm fortunate to know in what and whom I hope, though I often fail miserably at describing it.

Thank heaven, and all her swirling stars, that others are better with words than I:

"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in."
O Little Town of Bethlehem: lyrics by Phillips Brooks, 1867

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