Among all of the songs of the season, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” surely will be among the most frequently sung this weekend. The hymn may also be the one with the greatest honesty of all the tunes associated with Christmas. Phillips Brooks got it just right in the first stanza:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!Above thy 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.
The stanza captures the heart of Christian faith. Christians celebrate Christmas at the darkest time of the year to announce our hope that darkness never gets the last word in a world made by God whose first words are “Let there be light!” The light does shine in the darkness, but we cannot forget that the darkness is there. Light brings hope. Darkness awakens fears.
Hopes and fears. Matthew and Luke embrace both the hope and fear of Christmas.
Of the two, Luke is less stark. The hope of the birth of the Christ is as large as Mary’s belly as she and Joseph make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The fear is clearly present, though muted, with the by-the-way observation that there was no room in the inn. Reading to the end of the story we are reminded of the ever-present fear framed by Christmas hope. On the day of the circumcision of the Christ child an old man named Simeon takes up the child and offers blessings to God for the gift of this child for all peoples. Then as he hands the child back to his mother the chill of fear returns as he says to Mary, “and a sword will pierce through your own soul” (Luke 2.35). Hope frames the scene, yet fear is in the picture.
The fear of Christmas is more visible in Matthew’s version of the story. From Joseph’s concerns about an unexpected pregnancy, to the trembling of all Jerusalem when King Herod first hears the proclamation of the birth of the Christ, fear sets the tone. Hope is hidden away among the gifts of the magi, soon to be packed up as Mary and Joseph flee Herod’s wrath and escape to Egypt.
What happens next nearly eclipses all hope. Herod orders the slaughter of innocent children in an attempt to eradicate a threat to his throne. Matthew forces us to hear the wailing of mothers who have lost their children to senseless violence. Yet the hope survives, framed by the horror of the cries of childless mothers. The Christ child survives and returns to Galilee.
Hopes and fears. Phillips Brooks got it right. The celebration of Christmas should, too. Our world is not that different from the world described by Luke and Matthew. Homeless people are turned away from warm places, political powers continue to suppress those who bear good news, and violence robs mothers of their children.
We live in a dark world. Light continues to shine in the darkness, and the darkness can not put it out.
Richard Wilson is professor of theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Columbus Roberts professor of theology in the department of religion at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served as chair of the department from 2000-2021.