The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown is depressed. He doesn’t feel very uplifted by the approach of Christmas, ostensibly because it has gotten “commercialized,” but really, as he admits to himself early in the special, because he perceives that nobody likes him, so, “Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Charlie Brown’s self-derision is healed in the end by the kindness and closeness of his friends. But many more people besides Charlie Brown struggle at Christmastime, either because they also think that nobody likes them, or else because the memory of lost loved ones becomes more painful now, or else because the changes they’re seeing all around them—the increased crowds and clamor; the repellent false sentimentality and self-interestedness of actual commercialization; the growing darkness, both spiritual and literal—just puts extra stress on them.

I think it’s both common and completely okay to feel a mixture of happiness and sadness on and around Christmas. Life itself guarantees a mixture of both, and Christmas has a way of concentrating, even representing in a fractal way, life itself. One of the main points of Christmas, after all, is not that it’s all light and joy, but rather light within darkness. It’s actually a tiny pinprick of light that breaks into an otherwise comprehensive darkness. What makes it worth celebrating is that that pinprick of light comes with the promise to expand, wider and wider, and to eventually conquer the darkness entirely. Christmas is a balance of acknowledging the tininess of the light’s entrance with the greatness of its promise.

But that balance, or else that tension, can be really difficult to hold together, especially when what most occupies our immediate experience—externally or internally—is, like the streets of Bethlehem on that first Christmas night, mostly dark. In those dark streets “shineth the everlasting Light,” says that sweet-as-syrup Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, in its noble sentimentality. But it concludes that verse with the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Even if under-emphasized in the cultural Christmas celebrations around us, the biblical narrative of the birth of God into the world certainly makes clear that some people—some very powerful people—fear this birth. 

“King” Herod slaughtered an entire city’s population of male children aged two and under because of his fear of the birth of the true King. But he was neither the first nor the last example of a dubious power structure trying to stamp out the advent of a legitimate power come to supplant it. We all, in fact, have within us little structures built up here and there that guard little secrets, or keep out tough questions, or maintain facades of strength, or artificially inflate our egos. And we’d all rather not, if we’re honest, face the dismantling of those dubious systems by meeting the cold, hard truth. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn rightly pointed out that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” But that line separates not only good and evil in a moral sense, but goodness and badness in a more general sense, too: health and wholeness vs. sickness; truth and right vs. falsehood and error; God-orientedness vs. self-orientedness; basically, the way we should be vs. the many ways we shouldn’t be. We’re all little bundles of oughts and ought-nots. Back at our more conscious level, this deep reality produces in us many hopes and fears.

All those hopes and fears are met in the Christ child on Christmas. He is the cold light of day, the Truth come to dismantle our dubious power structures, to shine in the darkness and reveal the ugliness that has gathered in the deep sumps of our hearts. But he has come to us as a baby. 

Swaddled and bound. Lying down. If ever there is a time to approach him, it’s now. 

Because he’s also the triumph of health over sickness, right over wrong, the perfection of humanity over its long millennia of brokenness. In his humanity, everything is put on the right side of that line that passes through the human heart. Here is the New Man. And as one meek and approachable, as a little bitty baby, we have access to him and his perfected humanity—and through that, to the inner life of God. When we sing in our hymns and carols “O come ye to Bethlehem,” “O come all ye faithful,” “O come let us adore him,” we can’t help but come with both our hopes and our fears, with everything inside us, regardless of what side of the line it falls on. We don’t have to have it all sorted out in order to come. We merely need an opening in our heart for him, even just the size of a pinprick. He can fit.

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