Thursday, January 16, 2020

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Here is the fifth of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme.

Talk Five: The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

They may be very familiar, and they may get a bit overdone at this time of the year, but I still love Christmas carols. Their very familiarity, however, can result, all too often, in us not really hearing them, or at least not hearing their words. This used to be the case for me with one popular carol that is much sung each Christmas, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’. I used to regard it as nice, but a bit too sentimental for my taste; good background music, but not much more. Then I was struck for the first time by the last two lines of the first verse: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’ And I discovered that there was truth in the carol that went far deeper than I had imagined.

The carol was written by Phillips Brooks, an American clergyman, after journeying on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to assist in Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in 1865. He both describes and reflects on that experience in his carol. Tonight, we will mark the passing of another year, and look forward, if that’s the right way of putting it, to the year ahead. Brooks closes his carol with these words. ‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.’

Many balk at any mention of sin. They refuse to acknowledge any fault or blame. They are entire unto themselves and are happy to get on with their lives without any help – or so they think – from anyone else and certainly not from any divine being. Others are more realistic; they know only too well their need of help and answers; of what used to be called ‘salvation’.

Over Christmas, in various services in church, we have been thinking about the birth of Christ and the salvation he came to bring. People who know their need of salvation look for it in various places: in different creeds and lifestyles and not least in what they themselves need to do. But if our hope of salvation lies in believing the right things, then we are always going to be vulnerable to doubt and prone to changes in philosophical ideas and theological fashions. Or if our hope of salvation lies in our own ability to do the right things, then who can be saved? For all of us are mortal, inclined to sin and weakness. We are all failed human beings no matter how we try to disguise it.

But the good news of Christmas is that our salvation doesn’t depend on us at all. Our hope of salvation lies in a person and in the unrepeatable birth of Jesus being repeated in us. In other words, because the Christmas story really did happen, because Christ was born of Mary, the world can never be the same. And if we open our lives to him our world will never be the same again either. For Christianity is about an encounter with Mary’s child, an encounter which makes possible knowing Him in a way that transcends knowledge.

Before he wrote the words, ‘be born in us today’, Brooks wrote a verse that we normally leave out of the carol:

‘Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the Mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, 
        and Christmas comes once more.’ 

During the Christmas season, as we have in various ways retold the story of the first Christmas, we have attempted to travel back to Bethlehem, to visit the place where Jesus was born, and to hear again the message of the angels. But now, it is time for Bethlehem to travel back with us. It is time for the dark night to wake, the glory to break, and Christmas to come to each one of us once more.

To come not as a nice story to think about once a year as we indulge ourselves with food, drink, partying, and presents, but as the answer to all our hopes and fears as we enter a New Year. For the message of Christmas is not just for Christmas, but for the whole year. It is a message of hope and the answer to all our fears whatever 2020 may have in store for us.

As then we enter a New Year, may Christ enter our lives and live in them and through them in the year ahead.

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