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.
These words will be sung by thousands tonight, and regarded by most of them as harmless sentimentality, which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on your point of view. But I've always found it the most profound and challenging of Christmas Carols.
I've noted this year, having more time for observation than I used to, the controversies stirred up in the media by opponents and defenders of religion. The Advent season brings Richard Dawkins out of the woodwork as reliably as daybreak makes the birds sing, and everybody else joins in the fun. Media pundits queue up to offer their views on the state of the Christian religion, the Church of England, and the future of Christmas itself, and meanwhile the churches engage in an advertising blitz to rival the apparently secular one which calls us to the shopping centres every December day.
It isn't surprising that Christmas stirs such strong passions when we remember what is at stake. Christmas and Easter, the two great celebrations, show up, like nothing else, the huge gap between the Christian view of the world and the atheistic, purely material one. Many of us sense this, and value the annual trip to church not just for childish reasons, but because it puts in touch with something deeper, something which goes beyond the world we can touch and see. But few realise just how deep, and how far beyond.
As we sing the words of the carol, it tells us that there was a moment in space and time when the whole of human history turned on its axis. The destiny of each and every one of us, a mystery which even the greatest minds could not solve, was written for all to see in stars and song and the moment of childbirth at Bethlehem. We are not just here for a time before we dissolve again into nothing. The moment we live in is not the only reality. Christmas changes everything, heart and soul, life and death and everything in between. "Heaven touches earth", in the words of the prayer. And at the moment it touches, Jesus is here, Do we dare to believe that as we sing, and allow the one who is from heaven to reach out to us tonight?
Picture by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic from Cagua, Venezuela (Sirius) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons