The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from audio recording.
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.
Those famous words were penned by Phillips Brooks over 100 years ago and they still resonate with us today, tonight. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Kathleen Norris has described the incarnation as the place where hope contends with fear. Perhaps she had her inspiration from “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But tonight we join the shepherds and the angels on the last leg of our journey to Bethlehem to see what God has done – the indescribable miracle that God loved us enough to take on human flesh and to be born human and dwell among us.
Each one of us has had our own road to Bethlehem. In the gospel of Matthew the Magi make their way to Bethlehem by reading the stars in the heavens and the prophets and sages of ancient times. The shepherds are greeted by an angel and then the heavenly host beckons them to go and see what God has done. What has your journey been? What has your road to Bethlehem entailed and what are you seeking tonight as you come with expectancy and hope to experience the Christ child and to welcome that gift in your heart once again?
Almost 19 years ago I made my first journey to Bethlehem. My husband and I went to the Holy Land on our honeymoon and I was so excited to go. I wanted to experience first-hand, to see and taste and feel, the place where Christ was born, where Christ walked and moved and lived and had his being. So I was filled with great expectation and hope for that journey. I confess that on the first few days in Jerusalem, as we went around the city and went from traditional site to traditional site and I was told – “Well, this is the traditional site Absalom’s Tomb but, of course, Absalom is not buried there” and “This is the traditional site of King David’s tomb but, of course, King David isn’t there”- I started to get disappointed. I had gone to the Holy Land seeking Jesus and it seemed everywhere I turned it was not what I expected.
On about the fourth day on our journey, we were going to Bethlehem and we were blessed to be accompanied by a very wise Anglican priest who’d lived in the Holy Land for a long time. As we were journeying from Jerusalem on the road to Bethlehem, along the way we stopped at Rachel’s tomb. I turned to Bill and I said, “Please don’t tell me that Rachel isn’t buried there.” I just didn’t think I could take one more disappointment. He looked at me and he smiled with that knowing wise smile and he said, “Jan, it doesn’t matter because, you see, millions of pilgrims over the centuries have come and prayed in this place. It’s holy ground; it doesn’t matter whether Rachel’s actually buried here. This is a sacred and holy place.” It reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding:” “You are not here to verify… you are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.” You see, I finally got it. Even though I intellectually understood this, I finally got it deep down in my spirit: that Jesus wasn’t about any particular place or time; that Christ’s spirit transcends time and place; that Jesus is everywhere if we will only welcome him in.
That’s the gift of this night. That’s the last leg of this journey to Bethlehem. We’re here. Christ is here. Will you welcome him in? And once you have, your challenge and your call is to tell the story, the story that you have received, the story you have heard tonight of God’s greatest gift to us. And how will you tell the story? St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” Your very lives tell the story and the gift that you have received.
This past Saturday the Cathedral was filled with children and families for our annual Christmas pageant and any child who wanted to come up to be a shepherd was adorned with the shepherd’s costume. Any child who wanted to be an angel was adorned with a halo and angel wings. I saw a few angel wings out here, by the way, when I walked to the front of the church. But what really touched me about the re-telling of that story was that the angels and shepherds and all gathered were a part of it. A group of about 35 people had come – airmen and soldiers and chaplains from Fort Lee, Virginia. And these parents had brought their children to be little angels and little shepherds and so they were. When we sang “Joy to the World,” all those little angels were jumping up and down and dancing on this platform-would that we would be that excited about the gift of the Holy Family. Chaplain Wallace, after the service, who had brought these airmen and soldiers from Fort Lee, told me that many of the service people were soon to be deployed to Afghanistan. And this would be the time for those families to come together and celebrate and to understand about God’s great gift to us and yes, the Prince of Peace. He said these kids, many of whom had never been in the Cathedral before, will never forget this. They’ll never forget the opportunity they had to tell the story and it will stay with them forever.
Tonight we gather around the manger to behold what God has done for us. It’s the greatest gift that anyone of us could imagine. How are you going to tell the story? In a few minutes we’ll be lighting the candles symbolizing the everlasting light to go out into the darkness to a hurting and suffering world. I invite you to take that symbol and let it abide and dwell in you. That the light of Christ goes out from this place in each one of you, not bound by time or space or place, but dwelling and abiding in each and every one of you.
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! Amen.