Photo by Evan Earwicker. evan@dancewithme.orgSo, what's your favorite Christmas carol? It's an appropriate question to ask given the holiday season and I'm sure the answer is stored in one the mental lists many of us make ranking things like our favorite Christmas desserts or top five gift wishes. My choice for number one Christmas carol may seem a little strange, one that while most would consider "nice" is hardly a chart-topper or as well known as some other favorites. The carol is "Little Town of Bethlehem".

In explaining why this carol is my favorite one I readily admit that I will betray the unoriginality of the choice. You see, this song was the subject of a Christmas sermon I heard five years ago in which the pastor explained why he loved "Little Town of Bethlehem" so much. It was a brilliant sermon, one of those you regret not taking notes on! If I recall correctly, the pastor's message revolved around one particular line of the song, and it is this final rhyming couplet of the carol's first verse that contains the reasons I think it's a such a wonderful musical ode to the Christmas spirit:

"Yet in they dark street shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met I thee tonight."

The hopes and fears of all the years. Have you ever thought of Christmas in those kinds of terms? Christmas and hope go together pretty well. But fear? And what about the combination of hope and fear? At first glance it does seem like a rather strange line to find nestled in a Christmas carol.

But it does make some sense when you think about it. If you're a kid, for instance, the promise of Santa Clause and all his wondrous bounty of gifts is tempered by the fear that maybe you were too naughty the past year to share in any of it! If you're an adult, a holiday that represents a significant marker of the end of yet another calendar year gives you cause to reflect on what was and what is to be in the coming year, with all the joyful anticipation and fearful anxiety that may entail.

If you're a Christian, contemplating the occasion of Christmas – a holiday in the truest sense of the word – may leave you in the same pensive mood in which you find yourself when partaking of the holy communion in church. In my experience, holy communion also leaves you with a strange, almost contradictory mix of emotions. As I drink the wine and eat the bread that represent Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross I at once feel both profoundly sad and exceedingly jubilant, I am both in reverent awe and full of praise, filled with both hope in the Lord and with the fear of the Lord. Whenever we come to the communion table we always come knowing we have failed in meeting God's standards and are thus deserving of his judgment but also knowing we are victorious in that final judgment because of Christ's death on the cross.

And that brings me to the more general, almost cosmic significance of those last few lines of the carol's first verse. The "hopes and fears of all the years" is a wonderfully subtle phrase that becomes so meaningful when you consider it in light of all humanity of all time being the concern of God's divine, redemptive love. The hopes and fears of all the years really are the fundamental and perennial human desire to know God and dwell with him coupled with the realization that we fall far short of the capacity to do that on our own merit or strength. But then, on that holy night in the unassuming village of Bethlehem, God gave the world his final and complete answer to that eternal human hope and fear. The subtlety and significance of the moment is captured beautifully and simply in another verse that appears later on in "Little Town of Bethlehem":

"How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven."

I pray that this Christmas all your hopes and fears will be met in you on that holy night when Bethlehem received the savior of the world.

Merry Christmas!