Stanford Memorial Church “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” So wrote poet Alexander Pope in the eighteenth century.i That’s what we have as we gather here tonight on Christmas Eve: hope, eternal hope. For “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light…For unto us a child is born…Glory to God in the highest.”ii And Merry Christmas to each and every one of you. “Come to Bethlehem and see, Christ whose birth the angels sing.”
This has not been an easy time for any of us, for our country or for the world. It’s said that our recent economic downturn has been the worst since the Great Depression. America is involved in wars in two countries, as well as a larger war on terror that knows no borders. We’re in the midst of global warming which could mean ecological disaster. And this country has just come through a bruising political season.
Yet, John McCain told us in his gracious concession speech that he deeply admires Barack Obama for winning the presidency “by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president. McCain went on to say: I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together… to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited. I call on all Americans… to not despair of our present difficulties but to believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.”iii
Hope springs eternal.
Barack Obama has written a best-selling book called The Audacity of Hope. In it he describes “a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work…and can inspire us to pride, duty, and sacrifice.” He first heard the phrase “the audacity of hope” in a church sermon. He remembers thinking, that’s “the best of the American spirit… having the audacity to believe that despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict… to believe that despite personal setbacks, the loss of a job or an illness in the family or a childhood mired in poverty, we had some control…over our own fate. It was that audacity, I thought, that joined us as one people. It was that pervasive spirit of hope that tied my own family’s story to the larger American story.”iv
Hope springs eternal.
Jesus was born in a barn, far from his parents’ home, in a nation occupied by foreign troops, under a local king who wanted him killed. After his birth, his family fled abroad to Egypt to save his life.v Not a particularly auspicious start. In the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” its author, Episcopal bishop Phillips Brooks, wrote “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”vi Fears as well as hopes. That’s realistic. That’s how it was at the time of Jesus’ birth, and that’s how it feels tonight. We in America could have all our hopes dashed rather than fulfilled. Barack Obama may not bring this country together, and he may not restore our international stature. The economy may not turn around soon, wars may drag on interminably, and the green planet may still be a long way off. We have hopes, but we also have fears.
But this is what religion is all about: long range hope, not short term hopefulness. Hope is one of the three Christian virtues, along with faith and love. We should aspire to it as a way of life, and not just as immediate expectation. Let me tell you a story about this.
The Catholic nun and author Joan Chittister wrote about making her way to Bethlehem not long ago through roadblocks and shuttered towns on the West Bank. In the public square of Bethlehem soldiers sat on jeeps fitted with machine guns. Every muscle in her body was tight as she felt the place could explode any minute amidst the seething anger between Israelis and Palestinians. (And her bus could have been blown up before she reached her destination). As she describes it, “somehow Jesus of Nazareth had been born here, in the same kind of environment that existed here today – into a culture where people were strangers in their own lands and soldiers walked the streets to control them. It was a political insight. It was a deeply, disturbingly human one. If Jesus was born into this, and brought the presence of God into its midst and changed attitudes in the heart of it, then so could we. So must we.”
She entered Nativity Church, which is said to have been built over the very spot where Jesus born. She knelt down with her fellow travelers on the marble floor and sang ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ – experiencing those words, “The hopes and fears of all the years,” with new understanding and new conviction. Chittister writes, “We were born. Jesus was born. What Jesus did to survive life, to bear life, to create life, to become life, we can do as well. Or better: What we can do to survive life, to bear life, to create life, to become life, Jesus did before us. Our struggles are not new. Our questions are not senseless. Our burdens are not unbearable.”
Chittister gained other insights during that visit to Bethlehem: “Christmas is about finding life where we do not expect life to be. Every year of life waxes and wanes. Every stage of life comes and goes. Every facet of life is born and then dies. Every good moment is doomed to become only a memory. Every perfect period of living slips through our fingers and disappears. Every hope dims and every possibility turns eventually to dry clay. Until Christmas comes again. Then we are called at the deepest, most subconscious, least cognizant level to begin once more to live newly again. Christmas brings us all back to the crib of life to start over: aware of what has gone before, conscious that nothing can last, but full of hope that this time, finally, we can learn what it takes to live well, grow to full stature of soul and spirit, get it right. There is a child in each of us waiting to be born again.”
It seems to me that Joan Chittister, kneeling in the church in Bethlehem, gets the spirit of this Christmas Eve just right: “Let the soldiers stomp through life. Let the cold winds blow. Let the birth points of all our lives be drowned in obscurity. Let the days seem mundane and fruitless. This place in Bethlehem, cold, dark, small, worn down by years of discovery, justifies them all. Jesus has been here before. Bring on the days of our lives. We have a [son of] God who has already walked them and found them holy-making.”
As she left Bethlehem and drove back through the checkpoints and by all the machine guns, past villages where uprisings were constant, life looked different and the “fears of all the years” had been transformed. She felt that Jesus had been born into the same kind of world she was now living in. He had loved it, weathered it, and then re-envisioned it with new perspectives on nonviolence, community, tolerance, social justice, and compassion. Through him the face of God had shone clearly upon the world. What else could she possibly need now to live her life more fully than to try to walk in his footsteps?vii
Hope springs eternal.
Barack Obama writes of a personal practice he’s had when he feels his hope is fading as a public servant: “I like to take a run along the Mall…[and] up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial. At night, the great shrine is lit but often empty. Standing between marble columns, I read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. I look out over the Reflecting Pool, imagining the crowd stilled by Dr. King’s mighty cadence, and then beyond that, to the floodlit obelisk and shining Capitol dome. And in that place, I think about America and those who built it. This nation’s founders, who somehow rose above petty ambitions and narrow calculations to imagine a nation unfurling across a continent. And those like Lincoln and King, who ultimately laid down their lives in the service of perfecting an imperfect union. All the faceless, nameless men and women, slaves and soldiers and tailors and butchers, constructing lives for themselves and their children and grandchildren, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, to fill in the landscape of our collective dreams. It is that process that I wish to be a part of. My heart is filled with love for this country.”viii
May we leave this church tonight with our hearts filled with love for this country at its best, with our eyes set on a vision of a world transformed, with the conviction in our souls that tomorrow our personal lives can be better, and with the willingness to roll up our sleeves to help make it so. Hope springs eternal in the human breast. For Christians that’s because “Once in royal David’s city, Stood a lowly cattle shed, Where a mother laid her baby, In a manger for his bed.”ix
i Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1733-4), www.theotherpages.org/poems/pope-e1.html
ii Isaiah 9: 2,6; Luke 2:14 (King James version)
iii John McCain, Concession Speech, November 5, 2008, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96631784
iv Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), pp. 8, 356.
v Matthew 2: 1-23.
vi Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1868).
vii Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori/Triumph, 2006), pp. 89-92.
viii Obama, The Audacity of Hope, pp. 361-362.
ix Cecil Alexander, “Once in Royal David’s City” (1848).