“Let us go now to Bethlehem” (Luke 2.15)
A Meditation for Christmas
By The Rev Paul Hunt
Part-time priest-in-charge of St. Clement’s and All Saints in Hastings Old Town.
It is Christmas once again. Each year, in our hearts and in our minds, we go to Bethlehem. But why do we make our annual pilgrimage?
Is it a hope that our annual visit to the stable will somehow trigger our memories and transport us back in our minds to a Christmas or Christmases past?
Perhaps this transportation is to the Christmas of our childhood when the world seemed so magical and innocent and secure? This is the Bethlehem of nostalgia.
Or is it to a Christmas shared with someone we love still but who is now part of that multitude which no-one can number on another shore and in a greater light? This is the Bethlehem of melancholy.
Perhaps we go because we like the aesthetics of the nativity scene immortalised in so many great paintings, some of which are reproduced on the Christmas cards we send: The tableaux of shepherds and wise men, of Mary watching over the infant Jesus in the manger, Joseph watching over them both, the star above the stable and the chorus of angels.
The cattle are lowing,
The baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus,
No crying he makes.
This is the Bethlehem of sentimentality.
Perhaps we go to Bethlehem each Christmas out of a desire to believe. I treasure those lines of the agnostic Thomas Hardy written during the First World War and which express a reverential doubt:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
This is the Bethlehem of wistful and reverential unbelief, “hoping it might be so”.
But perhaps we go to Bethlehem in our hearts and minds each year because we dare to believe.
This belief, utterly extraordinary, that in the babe of Bethlehem, God has entered into human history, taking our humanity unto Himself: The good and the bad, the happy and the unhappy, the wise and the foolish. That God has entered into human history at a particular time and in a particular place and through a particular person – the Word made flesh – is what distinguishes Christianity from every other religion and philosophy.
God is not remote from the world that He has made. Humanity cannot save itself and so it is God who takes the initiative expressed in the story of the Virgin Birth. It is telling us that the initiative in salvation comes from the side of God. This is why in normal times we sing that “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
On that first Christmas night, the shepherds rejoiced, not simply because they had seen a babe lying in a manger, but because they had glimpsed something of the future in the angels’ song – of peace on earth and goodwill amongst men.
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.
So why have we come to Bethlehem this Christmas? Nostalgia? Melancholy? Sentimentality? Wistful and reverential unbelief? Or do we dare to believe?
The shepherds said to one another and now say to us, a challenge as well as an invitation: “Let us go now to Bethlehem.”
The Reverend Paul Hunt is the part-time priest-in-charge of St. Clement’s and All Saints in Hastings Old Town.