Matthew 1:18—2:23; Luke 2:1–20

Phillips Brooks was one of the great American preachers of the nineteenth century. At the end of his career, he served briefly as Bishop of Massachusetts. Prior to that, he was rector of Trinity Church in Boston for twenty-two years. The current rector of that same parish is Samuel Lloyd, an equally acclaimed preacher, who — happily — will become dean of this cathedral next February.

While most of us know very little about the life of Phillips Brooks, virtually all of us know one of his poems. Much of it we know by heart. Brooks wrote the poem after a trip to Palestine in 1866. Two years later it was set to music, which is the medium through which it entered the consciousness of most of us. Listen now to Phillips Brooks’ well-loved words.

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 to-night.

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” croons the carol. Hopes and fears. Fears and hopes. Those two words describe certain realities in Bethlehem of Judea in the first century. They resonate also in Washington, D.C. and most of the rest of the world in the twenty-first century. So Philips Brooks’ little Christmas hymn invites us to contemplate how the fears and hopes that rendezvoused in Bethlehem so long ago also meet us here tonight, dressed as they are in the garb of this new century.

* * *

There are two accounts of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament, one in Matthew, the other in Luke. Luke’s version, which we just heard, is scheduled by the lectionary to be read most often. Matthew’s longer account seems relegated to a subsidiary status, as a reading for the second Sunday after Christmas. Compared side by side, the two narratives provide the biblical foundation for Brooks’ observation about hopes and fears. Matthew surfaces the fears that come into play at the birth of Jesus. Luke manifests the hopeful side of the nativity story, which may be the reason it’s the preferred reading for Christmas Eve.

* * *

In Matthew’s account, fear emerges immediately in the actions of two principal figures, Joseph and Herod. For Joseph, Mary’s pregnancy was a dreadful problem. Conception before marriage, according to Jewish law, dishonored the husband and was grounds for divorce. But Joseph, a compassionate man, wanted to save Mary from being embarrassed, shunned or even stoned to death. So he resolved to honor his commitment and marry her.

Spooked by soothsayers, King Herod feared that the mysterious birth of Jesus meant that there was now a rival for his throne. Not as principled as Joseph was, Herod dealt with his fear by trying to manipulate the three wise men from the East and by attempting to eliminate his potential rival through a campaign of infanticide. Understandably, fear gripped the new father, once more. Dreading the consequences of Herod’s murderous jealousy, Joseph fled with his young family to Egypt.

* * *

The fears that surrounded the birth of Jesus so long ago are paralleled by our own clusters of dread today. The elaborate security measures initiated by the 9/11 disaster arose out of our corporate fear of further terrorist attacks. Many analysts of the recent election believe that fear was a significant factor in how people voted. Recent polls reveal growing fear among us that this nation is caught in a misguided war, with the dreaded prospect of less respect abroad and increased mourning at home. The fear that paralyzed parents in the homes of first century Bethlehem is matched by fear felt on the dark and violent streets of Washington and other cities in America.

Societal fears like these are augmented by more proximate and personal fears: apprehension over job security in a time of downsizing and outsourcing; fear of sickness, old age and death; worry that expected resources for retirement will be eroded or eliminated; anxiety that a trusted medication may actually endanger one’s health; fear surrounding a disintegrating relationship or marriage; the underlying angst of raising children in a culture of eroding values. There are more than enough fears to go around in the Bethlehems of today.

* * *

In Luke’s lean, straight-forward narrative, no fears or anxieties are evident at all, at least in the main characters. Mary and Joseph went placidly to Bethlehem for the census. No qualms are recorded about their finding accommodations, or the impending birth itself. Only the shepherds seem to be afraid — awe-struck, really, by the overwhelming glory of the angels. And in Luke’s gospel there is no reference at all to a frightened escape into Egypt.

Despite Luke’s celestial extravaganza and scurrying shepherds, the focal figure of Mary is amazingly serene at the birth of her first child. She is a calm presence in the midst of an awesome event. All that Luke tells us about her is that she “treasured” everything that transpired and “pondered” its meaning. Consistent with her earlier response to the angel Gabriel’s astounding revelation about her pregnancy, Mary continues to manifest acceptance, courage, faith and hope.

* * *

As silent stars glide over the dark streets of your world, where do you seek hope in the face of your fears? Do you hope, as I do, for a just society, where adequate food, shelter and health care are accessible to all? Do you hope, as I do, that you and I will be released from those personal flaws (or sins) that imprison us within walls of guilt and misgiving? Do you hope, as I do, that peace and reconciliation will overcome conflict in the flashpoints of the world, as well as within the borders of our families or workplaces? Do you hope, as I do, that all violent impulses will be replaced by a spirit of compassion in ourselves, as well as in the world around us? Do you hope, as I do, for the kind of assurance that Mary and Joseph had, that inner security that comes when one places one’s ultimate trust in God alone? These and all other hopes, of course, are but the obverse side of counterpart fears. So what hope do you seek as a release from fear? What light do you desire to find on the avenues of your dwelling place this quiet night?

* * *

Mary and Joseph discovered that when fear mutates into hope, a doorway opens into the liberating, transforming power of God. Joseph discerned the presence of God in the midst of his fear, and responded resolutely in faith. Mary encountered God in the crisis of her pregnancy, and responded humbly, receptively in faith. Faith, as the Epistle to the Hebrews instructs us, is the assurance of things hoped for. Faith, in other words, is the extension of hope, or the completion of hope, because it turns hope into a sustaining motive for action.

With the help of St. Matthew, St. Luke and Phillips Brooks this Christmas Eve, we are reminded that when fear and hope truly meet each other, redemption is at hand, whether it be in Bethlehem or Washington or wherever one lives. At every major turning-point in life, both fear and hope are inescapably present, and it is out of the interplay of these two realities that our spiritual well being is fashioned. Hope without fear is naive abstraction. Fear without hope is inner death. But hope that emerges from an honest encounter with fear in the powerful presence of God points the way toward an abundant and fulfilling life.

* * *

As you and I seek to live creatively with our fears and hopes, may we be flooded with the everlasting light of God’s grace, revealed so wonderfully to us in the miracle of Christmas. Amen.