---- — I hadn’t planned this piece for my April column, but something happened that was impossible to ignore. Within a week, three different friends (count them, three!) from different parts of the country emailed to say they’d come across an old Crier column that they’d saved for twelve years and had sent to many friends because it meant much to them.
Well, I’m not one to shrug off signs. In medieval times, they called them “correspondences:” events beyond likely coincidence that might speak of divine direction. Today’s Quakers speak of “leadings,” and I’m a Quaker.
And so, even though the piece refers to Christmas references and it’s now half-past Lent, I’m presuming that, in a world even more troubled, the column will still “speak to readers’ condition.” After a dozen years, the world is no less troubled and even more adrift:
Long ago, when the world was almost new and I was a young prof teaching poetry, our textbook included a fine Thomas Hardy piece called, “The Oxen.” Its setting is Christmas Eve and recalls a dear legend from England’s West Country. At the stroke of midnight on Christmas, says the legend, all England’s oxen kneel in reverent awe of Christ’s birth.
It’s a wistful agnostic who speaks in the poem.
“So fair a fancy few would weave/ in these years!” he says sadly.
But he adds that, if someone urged him to come out to the barn to see the kneeling beasts, he’d follow readily.
“I should go with him in the gloom,/ Hoping it might be so.”
When I taught that poem, I’d emphasize that it was written in 1915, when England was learning the nature and horrible cost of modern war. Hardy seems to ask how one can possibly sustain belief, much less hope, in the face of such horrors.
Ninety years later, the question remains tragically apt. But these days, I see more in the poem, especially at Christmas time. The link for me is in that last line: “Hoping it may be so.”
Last Saturday Anne and I caroled with other Fly Creekers during the Cooperstown Christmas Walk. (Other groups were strolling the candle-lit streets, too; and some had better costumes and arguably better pitch than ours, but never mind.)
Among our noels was “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a carol often dismissed as sentimental, even syrupy. (That’s mostly the traditional melody’s fault.) But a close look at its first verse undercuts that judgment. The carol carries a strong and realistic Christmas message - one, as later poets have said, that has been lost behind the “rock-candy glare” and the “plastic Babes in Manger.”
The carol says that two awesome forces converge at Christmas: “the hopes and fears of all the years.” (The fears, mind you, not just of two thousand years ago, but of every age before and since.) It’s not hard to list those fears. They are born from our human skill to imagine the future and to worry.
Topping the list of fears is, of course, death - our own and our loved ones’. And following physical death are all the lesser deaths that erode the human spirit: injustice, illness, accident, danger of every sort; loss of job, income, home, friends, reputation - and even the ravaging of Earth by our own selfishness.
But Christmas counters all that. Whether we humans take the old, old story as fact or myth, we are moved by how it embodies our deepest, strongest wish: for hope in the face of fears. Each age offers its own grim proof that we just can’t make it on our own; and so we want help, from outside and above the human arena. We want meaning, purpose, ultimate release, even from death. And that’s the promise in the old, old story: Creation’s author enters human affairs, enters humanity itself, to give us hope.
And not just ordinary hope. In daily speech, that word stands for little more than wistful wishing. “I hope it’s not going to rain,” someone says, with a worried glance toward the dark sky.
But there’s much more to real hope than that. Even the dictionary says “HOPE IS THE FIRM EXPECTATION THAT WHAT IS DESIRED WILL SURELY OCCUR.”
That’s a tough, more muscular stance than mere wishing.
Hope speaks when we say, “It’s not going to rain!” even as thunder roars and lightning splits the sky.
The Christmas story means to promise just that sort of tough, muscular hope. But it does so with a powerfully disarming image: Infinite power enters human life as a newborn infant. The one who justifies a sturdy hope begins the rescue by taking on our helplessness.
A powerful concept, that, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” powerfully embodies it. The carol depicts humans shrouded in darkness, asleep under the silent march of distant, indifferent stars. But then it projects light, right into the darkness. It declares that our fears, and those of all the years, are defied, right in our dark streets. Our fears are met, matched, overcome by dazzling hope--by our firm belief that what is desired will surely occur.
That’s a magnificent promise. That’s enough to make oxen bow their massive heads and sink slowly, ponderously, to their knees.