O Little Town of Bethlehem

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year.  The season of winter wonderlands and ice skates, twinkly lights and hot cocoa, parties and presents and celebrations galore.  The season of coming together with friends and family, reflecting on the year behind us and looking forward to the year ahead, the season of giving and love, comfort and joy.  The most wonderful time of the year.

And yet.

And yet, if I’m being honest, this year it’s feeling harder than usual to tap into that Christmas spirit, that warmth and happiness and joy.  It’s feeling harder to put aside the heaviness of this year – the pain and fear and grief that has marked too many days of 2016.  It’s feeling harder to put aside the fact that the last few months have been the polar opposite of wonderful – marked by heartbreaking losses in the lives of people I love, disappointed hopes, and an election that has left so many of us shaken, grieving, angry, and fearful for the future.

This year it’s feeling harder to put aside all of that grief and pain, to enter into the Christmas season with a whole and happy heart, to let the magic of twinkly lights and tinsel move me from a place of anxiety and fear into a place of peace and joy.

Last weekend was the first Sunday of Advent, and at church we lit the candle of Joy, read a scripture about Joy and sang “Joy to the World” (sensing a theme here?) and I stood there trying with all my might to feel it – to feel joy.  I knew I was supposed to, that the story of Christmas, the Good News, the Gospel, should bring me great joy, especially this season  – but it fell flat.  That feeling of joy, that warm bubble in my chest that rises up when a baby smiles at me or I’m surrounded by my best friends or I’m sharing a laugh so deep I can hardly breathe – that feeling just wasn’t there.  The more I tried to manufacture that feeling – that Christmas card, picture perfect, gathered around the tree feeling- the more painful it felt.

A few days later I was listening to Christmas music on the radio, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” came on.  I was only half-listening, still not quite feeling that Christmas spirit, until I heard the lyric “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  I heard that phrase and I felt a ping in my heart and a lump form in my throat.  That phrase, “the hopes and fears of all the years,”  struck a chord in my soul that felt like truth – it felt like God.  Singing “Joy to the World” didn’t feel honest, but “hopes and fears” – now that’s a Christmas lyric I can identify with.  I think I just found my Christmas 2016 theme song.

This Christmas I’m reflecting on the truth that the Christmas story is a story about joy, yes – but it’s also a story about pain.  It’s a story about the grief and longing that comes with being human, and the hope that’s found in a God who so loved the world that he entered into that pain, to experience it for Himself.  It’s a story about a Savior who came from on high to down low – Emmanuel, God with us.  It’s a story about a God whose light of love and hope shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Last night I went to church with my best friend and her family, and as I stood in the sanctuary, surrounded yet again by Advent candles, again singing a Christmas song, I held my best friend’s daughter and I watched her sweet face light up as she looked at the trees and the twinkly lights, and I felt it – Joy.  That sense of peace and well-being, that emotion in my heart aligning with the truth I know in my head  – that it is well with my soul.  Because that baby was born in a manger 2,000 years ago, because God “put on flesh and dwelled among us,” because of God’s story  – the Christmas story.

This season I’m reminding myself of the precious truth that hope and fear can coexist – that the very heart of the Christmas story is about the hopes and fears of humanity coming together, and a God of great love big enough to hold them all.  This season I’m slowing down and letting myself feel it all – the yearning, hope, grief, fear, loss, love and – bit by bit, by God’s great grace and tireless love- also the joy.

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