The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

Micah 5:2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 1:39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for [God] has looked with favor on the lowliness of [God’s] servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is [God’s] name. [The Divine] mercy is for those who fear [God] from generation to generation. [God] has shown strength with [the Divine] arm; [God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [And] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. [The Divine] has helped [God’s] servant Israel, in remembrance of [God’s] mercy, according to the promise [God] made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

            When it comes to Christmas carols, I’ve always gone in for the loud, boisterous ones, “Joy to the Word,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” – all the carols you can play full organ and intro with trumpet fanfares and sing with soaring descants and end with grand crescendos and timpani rolls. I remember as a child, my grandfather had a record that he would play to me of “Joy to the World” with choir and organ and orchestra. And I would ask him to play it over and over again, whether it was Christmas or not (there just weren’t that many musical recordings featuring organ in my house, so you took what you could get).

            “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King…Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness…”

Or, “Hark the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King!’ Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies. Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!”

Or, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains, and the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strains: Gloria in excelsis Deo!”

Good, rousing Christmas songs, for sure. All carols you can play full organ and intro with trumpet fanfares and sing with soaring descants and end with grand crescendos and timpani rolls.

I still like those carols, of course. And we’ll sing them soon enough, organ and trumpet fanfare and choral descants and timpani and all. We need a little rousing music to get the blood pumping and mark with celebration the highpoints of our Christian year.

            But it’s been a hard Advent: preceded and punctuated with shootings of the innocent at Planned Parenthood and BlackLivesMatter demonstrations and social service agencies, Syrian refugees fleeing violence and political unrest in their homeland and facing the unwelcoming distain of their global neighbors, perhaps nowhere more than in the U.S. with the airwaves and internet filled with some of the most hateful and dangerous political rhetoric I’ve encountered in my lifetime targeting our Muslim siblings and neighbors. There have been our own personal tragedies and setbacks and worries this Advent, too.

            And today, congregations all over the country gather in their houses of worship to light the Advent Candle of Peace. Peace in an incredibly violent world, where words of distain and disgust and derision are spoken against those from other countries or those who practice a different religious tradition, and all to roaring crowds and thunderous applause. It’s hard to swallow, lighting the Peace candle on a day like today. Certainly some this morning must be lighting the candle with a wry smile, knowing it’s a hollow liturgical gesture.

            And, certainly, some will read Mary’s song this morning, ending with the words, “according to the promise [God] made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever,” and the same folks who grew up in Vacation Bible School singing, “Father Abraham had many sons,” will tragically forget just “how many sons had father Abraham” – Isaac and Ishmael.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King” and “Hark the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King!’” and the joyous strains of “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” sung as triumph songs just doesn’t sit very well this Christmas, of all years, when the noise of triumphalism is drowning out the sounds of peace.

            But this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about another carol. It’s never been one of my favorites. It wasn’t one I ever listened to on repeat as a child. When it’s sung in church, you can almost miss it if you aren’t listening carefully – barely a whisper among the singing joy of heaven and nature and the herald angels and all the in excelsis Deos!

Once the rector of Trinity Church in Boston, Phillips Brooks wrote the famed Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” with these absolutely haunting lyrics:

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie!

Above your deep and dreamless sleep,

The silent stars go by.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light,

The hopes and fears of all the years,

Are met in thee tonight.

“But you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”

“The hopes and fears of all the years” – that’s what the prophet Micah is talking about here. That is, to my mind, one of the most beautiful and theologically pregnant lines in any hymn I’ve ever heard. It speaks to something from of old coming and coming again into the newness of time, hopes and fears, longing and fulfillment.  

            For Micah, the hopes and fears of all the years culminated in an era of devastation and confusion – the people of Israel scattered to the winds in exile, the temple destroyed, the economic and political life of Israel in ruins. And Bethlehem, “one of the little clans of Judah,” o little town, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days…and the people will return and they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace – from you, o little town, the ancient origin of Israel’s greatest ruler, King David. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

            And Mary and Elizabeth – the only two who have any voice in today’s Gospel reading, two women of lowly estate – speak, too, of “the hopes and fears of all the years.” “Blessed are you among women, Mary,” says Elizabeth. And Mary replies, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for [God] has looked with favor on the lowliness of [God’s] servant.”

“[God] has shown strength with [the Divine] arm; [God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [And] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” says one poor woman from a poor town under foreign occupation to another poor woman who suddenly became a prophet when her own child leaped in her womb. And it barely sounded like a whisper over the roar of the Empire’s heralding trumpets of triumphalism.

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” o little town, o lowly Mary.

These days, Bethlehem is Palestinian territory. I visited Bethlehem around 2003 or 2004, just after its tourism industry had been greatly damaged when the holy city became a combat zone between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in 2002. There were hardly any tourists there, relatively no one in the streets the day we visited. It was hauntingly silent, streets and shops practically deserted.

The Church of the Nativity is a fourth century structure built upon the site traditionally believed to be where Jesus was born. When, in April 2002, Israel initiated a military campaign in Bethlehem, 200 Palestinians fleeing the Israeli troops sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity along with the 60 priests, monks, and nuns who lived in the Church’s compound. They were surrounded on all sides by Israeli troops for 39 days.[1]

“But you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah,” indeed “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Above your deep and dreamless sleep,

The silent stars go by.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth…

That’s what I think is so theologically poignant about this little phrase in Phillips Brooks’ Christmas hymn: Where the hopes and fears of all the years meet, becoming bound up in something so symbolically powerful that it is ready to explode – that is where the Divine is being born in the stillness of a deep and dreamless sleep.

Like the weakness of a newborn birthed in the dark streets as the silent stars go by.

Like the song of a poor woman from a poor town about the proud being scattered and the lowly lifted, sung so persistently that a whisper eventually drowns all the triumph songs of the Empire.

Like an ancient holy site, one of the little clans of Judah, still pregnant with significance beyond its size where the hope of freedom still struggles to be born.

And what about you? What is it that you’re waiting for this Advent season? What restless longings are stirring in your heart, yearning for the peace of fulfillment? Where has your imagination taken you during this season of anticipation and longing and hoping against hope for the coming of something we cannot see coming? Where are the hopes and fears of all the years meeting in your life, becoming bound up in something so symbolically powerful that it is ready to explode? That is where the Divine is still being born in the stillness of a deep and dreamless sleep.

Christmas doesn’t always come with full organ, introduced with trumpet fanfares and sung with soaring descants and ending with grand crescendos and timpani rolls. Maybe this year it will…maybe it won’t. But sometimes Christmas comes in stillness, like a deep and dreamless sleep under the silent stars. “For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth…” “How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n…”



[1] “The Siege of Bethlehem,” PBS Frontline, online at: https://web.archive.org/web/20131227111530/http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/siege/etc/cron.html.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • December 20, 2015