Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. –Luke 2:8–14
The Christmas story is a familiar one to us, having heard the tale in lessons and carols, in Sunday school classes and in Charlie Brown Christmas specials. The story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of the baby Jesus, lying in a manger. A scene so familiar as to be iconic, found on greeting cards, in nativity scenes on church lawns, and sung about in Christmas carols. And at the heart of it is the baby Jesus at the center of the creche, the one about whom all the carols sing.
But the story of Christmas is not the story of the birth of a child; though the birth of the Christ Child helps us to understand the true power of the day.
See, children are defenseless. They are completely dependent on their parents. Their bones are not even fully formed. Unlike the young of other animals who are born walking and within minutes graze alongside their parents, human children are incapable of doing anything. Long before the ultimate milestone of walking and talking, significant milestones for children include even the most basic things like rolling over and sitting up. Speech comes along only after a long period of incoherent babbling.
So, if you’re living under a brutal military occupation at the hands of the Romans, hoping for justice, longing for the freedom of your people, and the redemption of the world, you would want someone a lot more capable than a baby to show up. Babies provide us with a lot of joy and happiness, but let’s be honest—they require much, much more help than they provide. But babies do embody something powerful. And that is especially so for the baby born on Christmas day.
For, what is born on this day is hope. It is a nascent hope, a new born hope.
The child born on Christmas is not yet the man who will heal the sick, open the eyes of the blind, and welcome the outcast, and in whose death and resurrection will be the redemption of the world—but in that newborn child is the hope for the man to come. The newborn king cannot yet reign, but represents the hope for the reign of justice and peace that he will one day usher in.
In a world where there is so much brokenness, where there is so much pain, so much injustice, so much sorrow, the birth of hope can be a powerful thing. The hope that is born on this day is not a quick fix, it is not a magic solution to all our problems. But it is the beginning of those things. When the days are dark and the nights long, it can seem as if the darkness will forever dominate. But the birth of hope is like shining a light in the midst of the darkest corners of the world; it changes everything.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem all those centuries ago, his birth did not immediately change the world. The shepherds who came to see him, the wise men who offered homage, did so because of the hope that the Christ child brought.
And so, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas, we celebrate even more the hope that is born within us. For many of us, it may be a newborn hope, showing up in our hearts for the first time in the midst of a long, dark night. But even a newborn hope has the power to transform the world, a reality we remember as we sing:
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.
Mark A. Schaefer
United Methodist Chaplain