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.1
The carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” begins with these profound and precious words. And yet they are in many ways just the preamble to four words that utterly alter and define every landscape. Four words, so stunning in their scope and impact, that blow the mind. Four words that announce, crashing onto the scene of human history, the author of the play. Four words that perhaps due to familiarity seem no longer to inspire awe in us, but when really considered, cannot even be fully fathomed by human minds. Four words:
“For Christ is born…”
What must that instant have been like in the heavens? Surely every heavenly being was tense with attention, in hushed silence, watching with baited breath this most significant of moments in eternity. Immanuel. God became man and dwelt amongst us.
We are thinking of hope this week. Perhaps you, like me, have at one point or another had a friend tell you they are happy for you that you have faith, but that they, for their part, cannot believe. Part of what they’re actually saying is: Your faith clearly makes you happy, content, peaceful, hopeful. And, of course, everyone wants that. But they cannot will themselves, delude themselves into believing this hopeful fairy tale of the Christian faith. They simply cannot force themselves to believe what they consider to be false.
In other words, they consider themselves to be forfeiting hope for truth.
The carol speaks of the hopes and fears of all the years met in the person of Christ. It is right to do so. We tend to look for the answers to our doubts and struggles with “wheres” and “whats.” Much like the disciples in John 14, we assume that the destination and fulfilment of our journeys is a place, or a state of being, or an experience. Where will we end up in all of this? What will happen to us?
The Christian faith uniquely, staggeringly, answers our deepest cries with a who.
Hope, as it is presented to us in Scripture, is the anchor for the soul. It is not primarily rooted in the events of the future—the promises of God as they unfold—although of course it encapsulates that also. Hope is rather anchored in the person who holds the future, and by his word and power, upholds and guarantees it.
A devastating death, reaching and distorting every part of creation, was unleashed on the earth as humankind broke their relationship with God. Human history demonstrates the futility of our attempts to restore the order, caught as each of us are in the break. Yet woven throughout that very history are God’s whispers of hope, promises of a different future. Glimmers of light. A life to come that would swallow up the death and destroy it. “For unto us a child is born,” Isaiah writes in anticipation.2 And in that birth we see the sudden “now moment” of God. The accelerated unveiling of redemption plans. The dawn of the kingdom, the unveiling of the King. Christ has done what we are unable to do.
And so it is that hope and truth, far from being in opposition, are inseparable concepts in the Christian faith, the former owing its existence and reality to the latter. It is the one who called himself “The Truth”– his life, his death, his resurrection, and all that they signify—on whom our hopes are laid. Firm and secure.
I have found it intriguing that the book of Hebrews, speaking to us so powerfully of hope, does so in both the past and the future tense. Writing figuratively of the authority and victory of humankind in their intended God-given role, the author of Hebrews speaks of all creation being under their feet: “In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them” (Hebrews 2:8).
I confess that my own life is fraught at times with challenge, struggle, pain. I do not seem to see the reality of which these words speak Perhaps right here, in the midst of uncertainty, of pain, of vulnerability, the stage is set for Christ. As again Hebrews 2:8 reminds us, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus.”3
I am struck this Christmastime, that had I been present at that first Christmas morn, I might have been forgiven for looking at a little baby and wondering how it might be that this little life would hold all the answers. And yet, in every generation there are some, Simeon-like, who seeing with the eyes of faith, seem to really see Jesus, and in that sight, see all.
This Advent season, as you remember that most sacred of moments in history—the birth of Jesus—may you “see Jesus” again. And in seeing him, find afresh faith, courage, peace, wonder, joy… and hope.
Tanya Walker, PhD, is the Dean of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA) and a speaker for RZIM (Zacharias Trust) in the UK.
1 “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Phillips Brooks (1868)
2 Isaiah 9:6.
3 Hebrews 2:8c-9a, emphasis added.