This phrase from “O Little town of Bethlehem” has stayed with me through the Advent-Christmas season, and was “writ large” you might say, in the violence at the Capitol on January 6. The phrase “are met in thee tonight” in the context of the Christmas carol doesn’t suggest violence, a crashing together of hopes and fears from all sides, but has always had a sort of poignance, a tribute to human suffering and human dreams, and God’s answer to our disparate, desperate, dissonant ways of life, hopes and dreams for peace and happiness.
“How still we see thee lie….”A classic Christmas card: dark blue velvet sky, the twinkling of stars, and a ray of light shining down on the silhouette of a rough structure with a father and mother and baby under its roof.
Perhaps you and I are beyond the “sweet baby Jesus” approach to Christmas. We aren’t so much taken with the birth as such, we’re not visitors at the stable, we are farther along in the story, watching and listening for the Christ in history, the meaning of our nearer past and present.
Tragedy is too much with us, and with the vast unfiltered instancy of the internet we know more than our hearts can take, and fear is not so much of the unknown as the partially known. We have seen unprecedented joblessness and hunger, fires and floods. We have argued over true and and alternative facts and who and what can really be trusted. The pillars of democracy are shaking, our proud view of our nation as defender of freedom in the world has taken a pounding. Assumptions of patriotic unity and Christian values, the guarantee of success as the product of hard work, the potential for good through more sophisticated technology cannot be counted on. The hopes and fears of all the years have taken on considerably more weight and peril.
The Christmas season is spent, and we’re taking down ornaments and lights, wreaths and creches, and have begun Ordinary Time. But these times are far from ordinary. This new year has already brought rates of pandemic that are exhausting our resources and our health providers. A mob assault on the Capitol shakes our national stability, stokes fears of democracy coming apart at the seams. We don’t see an end to these perils, only more contagion.
In our liturgical year, there is always a return to the beginnings, and the assurance of God’s dynamic presence as we remember and are made present again to the mystery of salvation.
So we begin again. The birth, the epiphany, the flight, the return, the baptism and revelation of God’s naming: Beloved. This man, this curiously ordinary Beloved comes and bids us follow., a step at a time, day at a time, a short parable, a quiet cure, a believer here and a resister there, a fear quenched, a boundary crossed, a sin forgiven, a meal with followers. None of it shouts “Miracle! Spotlight!” And then comes betrayal and death. The hopes and fears of all the years swallowed in darkness. But Jesus is the Christ, and more than a promise—a Presence in the breath of the Spirit, Word made flesh and with us always.
The Mystery of Incarnation is manifest yet hidden, present and absent, moments of heightened appearance followed by a fading into everydayness. Emmanuel is the name of divine creativity woven into our flesh; loving accompaniment through it all, despite our fears, failures and inattention, our casual cruelties to each other and the earth our home.
T.S. Eliot wrote of hints and guesses. “The hint half guessed, the gift half-understood, is Incarnation.”* The rocks and stones are singing and the Spirit groaning with us in one great act of giving birth that encompasses Bethlehem and Galilee and Jerusalem and Calvary and the Garden, that crosses every border, speaks every language and holds all the hopes and fears of all the years and our constant plea: O come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.
*The Dry Salvages