The words are familiar. But this time, try reading them instead of singing them. Think about the words, and use your imagination:
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.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!
How silently–how silently!–the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray! Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel!
It’s that time of year. One of my radio presets is tuned to a local station that plays continuous Christmas music, from Mariah Carey to Carrie Underwood, Johnny Mathis to Mannheim Steamroller. I admit: if it went longer than a month, I’d probably get tired of it. You can only listen to Nat King Cole singing yuletide carols so many times, chestnuts or no. But for now, I’m enjoying the warm glow I associate with the music, including the many and varied renditions of O Little Town of Bethlehem.
Advent is a time of expectation, of awaiting the coming of the Messiah. The gift comes, but silently, at night, to a darkened city and a slumbering people. The Christ is born to the virgin Mary, unnoticed, unheralded, save for a private concert staged for a handful of starstruck shepherds. The Messiah enters the world meekly, and must be received the same way.
The song portrays the hopes and fears of an exiled and oppressed people coming to a watershed moment. This time. This place. The song ends with a prayer filled with petitions. Descend. Enter. Come. Abide. Be born in us; cast sin out of us.
Christians rightfully rejoice that these petitions have been answered. But that doesn’t mean we’re done with hope and fear.
Paul suffered much for the sake of the gospel. Yet he always peered through his present suffering toward the day in which “creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (Rom 8:21, CEB). Until then, we live in hopeful anticipation:
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Rom 8:24-25, NIV)
When I was a child, the only Christmas hope I knew was that one of the mysterious boxes under the tree held the present I really wanted. I had to wait, but I could hardly say I waited patiently. And many years, that hope ended in disappointment. (I never did get that James Bond super-spy attaché case.)
The question is whether I’ve grown up since then.
Whatever Paul means by patience, it doesn’t preclude the spiritual groaning that comes from suffering. Rather than label our groaning as faithlessness, he declares that the Spirit groans with us. That same Spirit teaches us patience little by little, whispering to our spirit, giving us glimpses of God’s movement in the world and in our lives, redirecting our hopes from the gift under the tree to the gift of future glory.
We celebrate Christmas, in other words, because our hope is still in Christ, who came in quiet love in Bethlehem, and will come again to finish what he started.
But the next time he comes, it won’t be silently.