“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee [Bethlehem] tonight.” So wrote Philip Brooks and so we sang in the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” a little while ago. “The hopes and fears of all the years…”
“It’s been a punishing year in the news,” David Green commented this morning on Morning Edition. That’s certainly one way to put it. You know the list–beheadings, school bombings, school shootings, police shootings, demonstrations, ISIS, Syria, Ebola, floods, fires, climate change, children at our borders without adults, and that’s just in national and international news. What punishing news has happened in your personal life? A job loss? A tough diagnosis of your health? The loss of a loved one? Divorce? “The hopes and fears of all the years…”
How about hopes? What are the hopes that you bring to this night? We have a wedding coming up this year, and so I am hoping for a stress-free, sunny day for that, but, more importantly, for a lifelong love for my daughter and son-in-law. How about you? Are you hoping for continued remission of cancer? A new job? A new relationship? Reconciliation with an estranged family member or friend? Retirement? A long-awaited vacation? Relief from depression and anxiety? Getting a handle on an addiction?
On a national and international level, we perhaps share many of the same hopes–hope for a deep healing of the racial divide in our country, relief for so many mothers and fathers of African-American boys and young men who fear for their lives, hope for the majority of poor and middle-class families and individuals who struggle daily to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to keep or get a decent roof over their heads, to get needed healthcare; hope for a narrowing of the gap between the 99 and the 1%; hope for a Congress that actually keeps the common, greater good in mind, rather than narrow, self-interests and partisan posturing; hope for an end to all wars, hope for an end to the poisoning of the atmosphere and waters and soil of the planet; so many hopes…
“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee [o little town of Bethlehem] tonight.” Phillips Brooks is said to have written this poem after having ridden on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem across the “Field of the Shepherds” on Christmas Eve in 1865. Back then, and even more so back when Mary and Joseph approached it, it looked little and defenseless. Talk about your backwater town, your hiccup in a Roman army drinking song. Today, of course, it’s surrounded by a wall to keep the Palestinians in–or out–or wherever they’re not supposed to be. Just a little town, a point of nothingness…
Thomas Merton wrote that there is an untouchable place in each one of us–a pointe vierge, as he called it
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God… from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness… is so to speak His name written in us… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”
This is the open space, an empty manger, if you will, a virgin womb. It is there that God enters in. It is from there that the divine human in each of us grows. When our defenses are down, when our cynicism is checked for a moment, maybe when our weariness kicks in and we are utterly open, there is indeed the possibility that God will be born in us.
So we bring our hopes and fears for ourselves and our world tonight. Is it just childish naivete that lets us hope for something new to be born in us and in our world? The not naive or sentimental historian Howard Zinn once wrote this–
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fat that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we thing human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. (Source unknown–from newsletter)
Just this past Monday an article on Slate.com entitled, “The World Is Not Falling Apart,” commented on the apparent ratcheting up of bad news and despair–
How can we get a less hyperbolic assessment of the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.
A careful, objective look at murder rates, rates of violence against women and children, wars between states, democratization, and number of civilians killed in mass killings or genocides since the 1940’s shows a decline in every indicator. “Look at the trend lines,” Bill Clinton said, “not the headlines.” “The world is not falling apart,” conclude these authors Steve Pinker and Andrew Mack.
“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” We come tonight with our hopes and fears and at this table, the God of the universe becomes embodied in our flesh. The God who is energy and light and love, justice and peace and hope, becomes a vulnerable child, a pointe vierge, and climbs up into our laps to love and be loved by us. This bread becomes God’s body and our body, the cup becomes God’s blood, our blood. The hopes and fears of all the years are met here tonight, so may our hopes empower us and our fears not paralyze us.
May this prayer of Thomas Merton, who saw his hopes and fears wrapped up in all the people he saw that day on the street corner in Louisville, be our prayer tonight–
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. [from Thoughts in Solitude]
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark