Faith Matters - Hopes and Fears

It is a tale of two cities. One is more a town, considerably smaller than the other. Since time out of mind, there have been ten kilometers of separation between them. If it were not that they frame the essential geography of our faith, they would be anonymous. They are the cities of our purple seasons. We journey to Bethlehem in Advent and to Jerusalem in Lent. They mark beginnings and endings, birth and death, a room and a tomb, a choir of angels and an angel solo, Christmas and Easter. Both cities stand within an arid landscape that promises to quench the thirst of the human soul. 


A few seasons ago, I made my first visit to Bethlehem to experience that arcane mix of old and new, sacred and profane, in which the Middle East specializes: soldiers at arms, Jews, Muslims, Christians, peddlers with postcards, sidewalk shops with the bounty of a fertile land, religious cliché for a price, religious truth and religious fantasy and a mix of awe and aversion. The Church of the Nativity, which dates to the fourth century, containing several sections claimed by competing religious traditions, stands at the center. It represents a dusty, uneasy ecumenical détente. The same Lord grasped by competing factions, each convinced that they sit on His right hand. 


Tourists queue to descend to the lower level, the traditional site of the cave where the Savior was born. There are smells of incense and smells of people. There are sounds of Christmas carols sung in more than one language, some I do not recognize. It was not what I expected. It was not the Bethlehem of countless Christmas pageants. Just another tourist, I should have known better. All of us waiting in line are sisters and brothers in more ways than I can tell. 


The liturgy of the day sounds from one or another of the chapels. Pilgrims whisper as they drink in this place that lives in an imagination painted by the pages of our King James Bible. Emotional, weeping, trembling people patiently wait in line to get to their knees to kiss the silver star, which tradition says marks the spot. It is a long wait and it is a hard floor. How many kisses before these?  And though I do not kneel and kiss with them, I bend the knee of my heart. My silence is my offering.  Silence is often the best offering. If there were a little more silence, perhaps we could understand something. 


Bethlehem is not what I expected, but it is much more than I had imagined. Whether this is the place or not, my heart is as their hearts. Bethlehem stands for a timeless truth, a heart’s desire, a light on all the dark streets east of Eden.


It is this sleepy little Arab village that moved Philip Brooks to write the words of one of our most beloved carols, a timeless celebration of this holy place. He visited Bethlehem as our country began to pull itself together after the Civil War, after the assassination in Ford’s Theater on Good Friday that same year. He was back as pastor with his congregation in Philadelphia before the words were set to paper. 


           “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.”


What are the hopes and fears of all the years?  We could sit with yellow pad and pencil. Parallel columns. Hopes and fears. We could fill a page. It is probably a useful exercise to review the distance between the place from which we have come and the place to which we are going. But then again, the deepest of the hopes and fears are not that accessible. We typically know them as “sighs too deep for words,” an inarticulate longing, and a restless desire to rest in God.


Fundamentally, the hopes and fears of all the years are no more or less than “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is a profound desire for the healing of a broken humanity, ours included, and the restoration of a disordered nature in the perfect order of God’s reign. It is God’s dream being dreamed within us. Hopes and dreams are two sides of the same manger. 


This purple season transports me once again. I am traveling to the Bethlehem of my hopes and fears. The little village is really a geography of heart and mind, a hope-place where sighs, groans and longings are our prayers, where we kneel to kiss a silver star and arise to find ourselves on a street where the illumination is a little brighter. 


I make my way to the Bethlehem of the heart once again this year for all of the reasons that I have always come. I come with all of my hunger and my need, all of my imagination, all of my disappointment, all of my pain, all of my cynicism, and all of my hopes and fears. I come as pilgrim and skeptic. I come as child and adult. I come as one lost who has been found. I come to bend my knee in hope.

I walk an anonymous street in an ancient town known to all. It is the street on which we all want to live, where an everlasting light is shining. It is the place of eternal human longing, where the hopes and fears of all the years are met. With all of the other shepherds and astrologers I seek the place where the star rests, where the light still shines. Seekers all, along with them, I feel at home here once more.



                                                                                                   God’s peace.

                                                                                                   Chuck Johns


By: Reverend Chuck Johns On 12/1/2009
Topics: Faith Matters